Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Basra is Burning

The security situation in Iraq is more unstable than it has been in months as the oil-rich region around Basra disintegrates into chaos in the wake of a massive operation by the Iraqi Security Forces that sparked an uprising of local Shiite militias. The situation has deteriorated so severely that Iranian figurehead Nuri Kemal al-Maliki issued a dire warning: Lay down your arms within 72 hours, "or face the consequences."

The fierce battles, along with indications in recent weeks that militia and insurgent attacks had already been creeping up, raised fears across Iraq that Mr. Sadr could pull out of a cease-fire he declared last summer. If his Mahdi Army militia does step up attacks, that could in turn slow American troop withdrawals.

There were also serious clashes reported Tuesday in the southern cities of Kut and Hilla, and Major Bergner said Wednesday that fighting involving the Mahdi Army was continuing around the country.

In Basra on Tuesday, American and British jets roared through the skies, providing air support for the Iraqi military. A British Army spokesman for southern Iraq, Maj. Tom Holloway, said that while Western forces had not entered Basra, the operation already involved nearly 30,000 Iraqi troops and police forces, with more arriving. “They are clearing the city block by block,” Major Holloway said.

The scale and intensity of the clashes in Baghdad kept many residents home. Schools and shops were closed in many neighborhoods and hundreds of checkpoints appeared; in some neighborhoods they were controlled by the government and in others by militia members.

Also on Tuesday, barrages of rockets and mortar shells pounded the fortified Green Zone area. An American military spokesman said there were two minor injuries to civilians in the Green Zone.

That there is fighting among the Shi'ites should surprise exactly no one. There is no love lost between the Hakim's and the Sadr's - they both represent remnants of a past in which Ayatollahs ran the show in that part of the world. The Badr Brigade and Jaish al Mahdi represented the "muscle" requisite of any successful crime family. Duh.

Be honest - have you even thought about the Badr Brigade in the last two years? You haven't have you? Well, think about it now - where do you think all those militiamen disappeared to? They sure as hell didn't go back into their lamps, you know. But the average American has about that level of understanding about just what the hell has been done in their name. Nimrods. (Not you guys, everyone else. Especially the idiots who still support this mess.)

The Badr Brigade is the ISF. They are still militia thugs, they just have uniforms and sanction now, thanks to the backing of Iraqi president Jalal Talibani. But frankly, anyone who really, truly knows anything about the players in this game (Pat Lang, Marc Lynch, Scott Ritter) has seen this coming down the pike since SCIRI won the recognition battle.

Does anyone else find it even slightly ironic that the security forces the United States is determined to prop up, by any means necessary, has it's roots in Iran, opposing Iraq? And simultaneously they are sabre-rattling at Iran.

Our ignorance of what has been brewing in Basra has been because the Brits, god bless them, really didn't try to piss off the locals by insisting everyone disarm.

Now, was it smart of them? Of course--they suffered less while occupying Basra. They dealt with the locals, and the locals quietly accumulated weaponry, strengthened their power base, and built their militias.

When you then go in with a different philosophy--al Maliki saying "surrender or be killed--" you're asking for a shitstorm.

Basra is an example of what is probably going to happen when former allies or people we've bought off decide it's worth their while to start killing again. It's a microcosm of what will happen when the Sunnis get wind of where Iraq is likely to go.

Of course, Juan Cole had this all figured out a year ago:

Feb. 23, 2007 | Tony Blair's announcement that Britain would withdraw 1,600 troops from southern Iraq by May, and aim for further significant withdrawals by the end of 2007, drew praise from U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney. "What I see," said Cheney, "is an affirmation of the fact that there are parts of Iraq where things are going pretty well."

In reality, southern Iraq is a quagmire that has defeated all British efforts to impose order, and Blair was pressed by his military commanders to get out altogether -- and quickly. The departure has only been slowed, for the moment, by the pleas of Bush administration officials like Cheney. And far from the disingenuously upbeat prognosis offered by the vice president, the British withdrawal could spell severe trouble for both the Iraqi government and for U.S. troops in that country.

The British helped provide the security that allowed private supply convoys bearing fuel, food and ammunition to travel from Kuwait up through Shiite-held territory to the U.S. military's forward operating bases in and around Baghdad and in Anbar province. Col. Pat Lang, a retired senior officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency, has pointed out that if Shiite militias began attacking those trucks, American troops in the center-north of the country would become sitting ducks for the Sunni Arab guerrillas.

The other danger posed by the British withdrawal is to Iraq's economy. The southern port city of Basra is the country's primary economic window on the world. Exports of the 1.6 million barrels a day of petroleum it managed to produce in January all went out of Basra. The pipeline that used to take Iraqi exports from the northern oil city of Kirkuk to Ceyhan on Turkey's Mediterranean coast has been subject to constant sabotage. The Iraqi state depends on the revenue realized from Basra's exports for its survival. As it is, it has been charged that militias siphon off $2 billion a year in petroleum revenues through smuggling operations. Were the central government to lose control of even more of those revenues, it could be starved to death.

And the danger is imminent. Although it is often alleged that Basra is relatively calm because it lacks Sunnis, neither claim is true. Though heavily Shiite, Basra also has tens of thousands of Sunnis -- even, perhaps, the odd al-Qaida operative. Sunni spokesmen such as Qatar-based Yusuf al-Qaradawi maintain that thousands of Sunnis have been driven out of the city and that a hundred Sunni mosques have been confiscated by Shiites. The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government denies these allegations.

And Basra is certainly not calm. The British have faced a difficult situation in the city during the past two years in particular, which has not been helped by the recent deterioration in relations throughout Iraq between Coalition troops and the Mahdi army of nationalist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. In largely Shiite southern Iraq, the British have lost 132 troops to attacks by militiamen, many of them involving roadside bombs. British bases and headquarters are constantly targeted with mortar fire and Katyusha rockets, and often nearby Iraqis are killed by accident in these attacks. Last Oct. 30, the British were forced to relocate most of the staff at the British consulate in Basra out to the airport because the consulate kept coming under mortar fire. When the British consulate cannot even function in the heart of a city, it is a sign of poor security.

Crossposted from Blue Girl, Red State. Thanks to Pale Rider for the help with this post.