Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Basra Violence Challenges U.S. Strategy

Yochi J. Dreazen, The Wall Street Journal:
A surge of violence in Basra, Iraq's second-biggest city, has raised new doubts about the U.S.-led coalition's strategy for pacifying southern Iraq by giving free rein to Shiite religious militias with ties to neighboring Iran. READ MORE

Backed by the U.S., the British forces in southern Iraq have effectively looked the other way as Shiite Muslim religious parties solidified their control over the city's government and as militia members joined the local police force while maintaining loyalty to militia leaders. The policy choice rested on an unspoken trade-off, with the British banking on the militias' ability to prevent insurgents from sowing instability or endangering Basra's ports and oil fields.

The coalition strategy for Basra has left militiamen in control of Basra's police force and Shiite fighters in plain clothes circulating openly in the city. A combination of the two forces has been blamed for the abduction and murder of two journalists, including one American. The forces are also at the center of the growing international dispute with Britain that erupted this week after British tanks crashed through a Basra prison and British forces raided a private house to free a pair of undercover commandos who had been arrested by Iraqi police and then handed over to militiamen.

The new violence has sparked fears that the Shiite militias aren't under the control of either the British forces in the city or the central government in Baghdad. In the case of the British soldiers, the Interior Ministry in Baghdad ordered officials in Basra to release the two men, but the demands were ignored.

"The British policy was the triumph of short-term stability over long-term success: The Shiite militias metastasize like cancer when they find out they can get away with things," said Michael Rubin, a former adviser to the American occupation authority in Iraq now at the American Enterprise Institute. "We always think we're playing the Iraqis, but they always end up playing us."

The uptick of violence in southern Iraq comes amid unrelenting insurgent attacks throughout the country. Eight American soldiers were killed in roadside attacks yesterday, while a suicide car bombing near the northern city of Mosul killed a State Department security officer and three American security contractors.

It is also happening as Shiites ratchet up their demands for far-reaching regional autonomy in southern Iraq ahead of a key referendum next month on the country's draft constitution. Shiite leaders are pressing for the creation of an oil-rich quasistate comprising Basra and eight neighboring provinces, a step fiercely opposed by Sunni Muslim Arabs, who complain that Shiite leaders are using militias and government forces to intimidate them through mass arrests and targeted killings.

The new tensions in Basra stem from the Shiite religious parties' growing impatience to impose strict religious law across the region and establish a largely independent regional government, said Kenneth Katzman, an Iraq expert at the Congressional Research Service, which provides analysis to U.S. lawmakers. He noted that Shiite militias in Basra have already begun effectively segregating the city's schools, beating up or arresting alcohol sellers and forcing men to wear beards.

"The militias and the parties want Islamic law and a form of Islamic government in Basra, and they're increasingly impatient with anyone trying to restrain them," he said. "What we're seeing is the creeping Islamization of that entire region."

The Shiite parties' main instrument for expanding their power over Basra has come from their ability to place militiamen in the city's police force. In an interview with a British newspaper this summer, Basra's police chief, Gen. Hassan al-Sade, admitted that three-quarters of his force of 13,600 men were openly loyal to the religious parties. Western visitors to the city say police cars there are emblazoned with posters of the Shiite parties.

"You have fighters from the different militias in the police force who don't give their allegiance to the police commander or the governor," said Peter Khalil, a former security adviser to the occupation authorities who now works for the Eurasia Group, a consulting company in New York. "These guys have just seeped in for months, with no transparency in their recruitment and no vetting of their backgrounds."

Sunni residents of Basra have complained for months that Shiites are using government security forces to conduct mass arrests and targeted killings designed to intimidate them. Shiite leaders have denied the accusations, but tensions between the two groups continue to rise.

Three British soldiers have been killed so far this month in roadside bombings that London attributed to Sunni militants who infiltrated the region from the restive central province of al-Anbar. The Sunni fighters' ability to carry out the attacks in a predominantly Shiite region suggested that embittered Sunni residents of the Basra area have begun offering shelter and other logistical support to militants from other parts of the country, Mr. Katzman said.

"The fact that Sunnis there are now welcoming insurgents from the rest of Iraq is obviously very worrisome," he said.

Write to Yochi J. Dreazen at