Basra strike against Shiite militias also about oil
Iraq's oil minister says the assault helped curb oil smuggling.
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The word in Basra is that Governor Waeli is under some sort of house arrest and that his brother Ismail has fled to Kuwait. The head of the local provincial council, Muhammad Sadoun al-Abadi, who belongs to a branch of Maliki's Dawa Party, is now running day-to-day affairs in close coordination with Maliki, according to a Basra-based scholar familiar with the situation.Skip to next paragraph
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Shahristani says among those arrested so far are Yussif al-Mussawi, the head of a small party in Basra called Thaar Allah (God's Revenge), because of his involvement in "kidnapping, extortion, and several smuggling rackets including oil."
The Basra-based scholar, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, says that while government forces control Basra's center and several other areas, the Mahdi Army remains largely intact in its traditional strongholds – poor working-class areas of the city.
"I expect lots of assassinations and sleeper cells to act up. There is a strong desire for revenge now," he says.
The intra-Shiite struggle for power and resources in the south is nothing new and has been under way since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. But the battle in Basra has now drawn a clear line between those Shiites in the ruling coalition – including Maliki and the powerful cleric Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim – and two main rivals that split from it last year: Sadr's movement and the Fadhila Party.
Although Basra is largely quiet at the moment, the fighting between US-Iraqi forces and the Mahdi Army militia has intensified again in Baghdad, with at least 30 people killed since Sunday. The government is demanding that the Mahdi Army disarm; Sadr is refusing this before US troops leave Iraq and is now threatening to escalate the fight further.
Muhammad-Ali Zainy of the London-based Center for Global Energy Studies, says it's a positive development for Iraq's future – and its oil industry – that Maliki is targeting militias and exerting control in Basra. But it remains to be seen, he adds, whether Maliki is willing to go all the way or whether he's just carrying out the agenda of Mr. Hakim's Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) party, which sees Basra's economic might as giving it greater influence in the south.
"The government must act evenhandedly and make sure the smuggling enterprise is not simply taken over by other militias," he says, adding that smuggling continues to be a highly lucrative business. The average price of one gallon of gas in Iraq is $0.40 versus $2 to $3 in Iran and neighboring countries.
Shahristani, who is very close to Maliki, says the security situation in Iraq continues to prevent foreign companies from doing much-needed repair work to facilities nationwide, not just in Basra. He says vital pipelines linking the country's largest refinery in Baiji, in the Sunni heartland, with Baghdad and Mosul are badly damaged by sabotage.
He says a substantial number of fuel tankers leaving Baiji end up falling prey to insurgents and gangs. Maliki's government is also at loggerheads with the Kurdish regional government over the authority to sign oil contracts, thereby stalling the passage of a new oil law.
The Ministry of Oil itself is in a fortress-like compound in Baghdad on the edge of Sadr City. Three mortar rounds fell on the nearby home of the interior minister Monday, sending a thick black plume of smoke into the air.