Saturday, February 24, 2007

Leaving Basra: proof of success or failure?

Dick Cheney has praised the British decision to pull troops out of Basra, claiming that it's "an affirmation that in parts of Iraq...things are going pretty well." This has been echoed by other officials in the Bush administration, including Stephen Hadley,"So this is basically a good news story, an indication that progress is being made, and that events on the ground permit this kind of adjustment in forces"

Other's dispute that assessment, noting that the British take regular mortar fire from insurgents in the South. From the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, we get this bleak assessment of the situation in Basra, and some predictions for the fallout once British forces finally leave:
The Calm before the Storm: The British Experience in Southern Iraq

[Basra] has suffered one of the worst reversals of fortune of any area in Iraq since the fall of Saddam’s regime. Once a relatively calm part of postwar Iraq, where multinational forces were able to undertake community policing at acceptable risk without helmets or body armor, Basra has since been overwhelmed by a storm of violence and disorder, becoming an area where it is impossible to undertake road moves without heavily armored vehicles. Although it was one of the more liberal and cosmopolitan areas in Iraq during the 1980s, Basra has transformed into a bastion of Islamist groups and their associated militias, afflicted with high levels of insurgent and criminal activity. From being the heart of Iraq’s oil industry, Basra is increasingly a kleptocracy used by Islamist militias to fill their war chests.

The ongoing weakness of Iraqi security forces became increasingly apparent in the early months of 2005 as Basra witnessed unprecedented levels of political violence and crime. Criminal factions, both in Basra and the tribal areas north of the city, undertook high levels of carjacking, kidnapping, and oil smuggling. The January elections were marred by violent intimidation beforehand and equally brutal recriminations afterward. Basra’s politically neutral police chief Hassan al-Sade stated that he trusted no more than a quarter of his officers and that another 50 percent owed their primary loyalty to militias. Using militiamen serving in the security forces, Sadrist factions and SCIRI affiliates such as Badr and Thar Allah accelerated their intimidation of local university professors, trade unionists, and other secular figures. Most Iraqis were forced under the protective umbrella of enforced party membership, and those who attempted to make a stand were intimidated and sometimes killed.
The authors' predictions:
In the coming year, the drawdown of British forces in the deep south will likely be accompanied by an upsurge of factional violence as the long-delayed fight for local supremacy begins in earnest.

The political parties, and particularly Muqtada al-Sadr’s organization, will struggle to control a fragmenting range of local militias, most of which have become thoroughly intertwined with criminal enterprises. Such militias and their attached politicians will compete violently at the local level, but they will also periodically close ranks whenever foreign or national interlopers seek to reestablish some degree of control over the deep south or restore a modicum of personal security to the populace. In essence, the deep south has become a “kleptocracy” where well-armed political-criminal mafiosi have locked both the central government and the people out of power. As journalist Steve Negus wrote in August 2006: “The region’s political parties have done almost nothing for the common good. Those with street credibility and a militia now have the power. . . . A year ago, people were clamoring for greater autonomy from Baghdad. Some people in this anarchic port city are now calling for the central government to save them from their elected leaders.”

If and when delayed provincial elections are held, their fairness will be heavily curtailed by four years of militia control and the obliteration of secular liberal opposition.

Such an outcome contrasts sharply with Britain’s hopes for the deep south. In January 2003, Britain’s vision for postwar Iraq was “a stable, united and law abiding state within its present borders, cooperating with the international community, no longer posing a threat to its neighbors or to international security, abiding by all its international obligations and providing effective representative government to its own people.” By February 2006, the British Ministry of Defense announced less lofty conditions for withdrawal.

Instead of a stable, united, law-abiding region with a representative government and police primacy, the deep south is unstable, factionalized, lawless, ruled as a kleptocracy, and subject to militia primacy. Brig. James Everard, commander of British forces in MND(SE) until November 2006, noted darkly: “Freedom of speech, freedom of expression: it just hasn’t quite worked out the way it was planned. They’re just not prepared to debate. They tend to do things at the end of a gun.” The senior British intelligence officer in Basra concurred, stating, “There are no moderate leaders here. We will not be leaving behind a Westernized democracy—and there will be a certain amount of killing once we go.” In the light of growing factional score-settling, the latter may soon appear to be an understatement.

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