Monday, May 08, 2006

British Death in Basra

The Times:
Iran is exploiting the struggle for power among Iraq's Shia militias.

British troops and Iraqi police have managed to quell the rioting in Basra after violent clashes between troops and youths demonstrating around the remains of the British helicopter brought down at the weekend. But although the city was largely calm yesterday, other parts of Iraq were racked by violence. Car bombs killed about 30 people and wounded more than 70 across the country. Meanwhile, 42 bodies were found in the capital alone, victims of sectarian killings. The need for an effective government to forestall a slide toward civil war is increasingly urgent.

Basra remains one of the more stable parts of the country. But even here, competition for power is growing between militias. British soldiers have won a reputation for restraint, but are increasingly caught in the middle. No longer can they count on local co-operation or patrol with ease as they did two years ago. It was unclear yesterday whether the helicopter was shot down, but the violence of the crowd that surrounded the wreckage was clearly instigated by Moqtada al-Sadr, the ambitious Shia leader of the so-called Mehdi Army, who is still smarting at the role British troops played in quashing his bid for power last year.

To establish themselves, factions outbid each other in militancy, fomenting opposition to the coalition forces. And until provincial council elections, which have been repeatedly postponed, are held next year, this un- stable situation will continue. It gives Iran a chance to make mischief. Already wielding considerable moral authority among Shia religious leaders in Iraq, the hardline Government of Iran is also using the opportunity to arm and instigate the militias. This is Tehran’s response to the international pressure over its nuclear activities, a cynical attempt to show the world the cost of isolating Iran. READ MORE

Little wonder, therefore, that violence has flared up in the Shia south only days before the issue of sanctions comes up at the United Nations Security Council. Britain and France are authors of the resolution ordering Iran to end its nuclear programme, and are pushing for a vote this week.

Britain’s best course is to remain resolute in Iraq, while training and expanding the Iraqi army and police force. There can be no question of any rapid withdrawal of British forces while the militias are struggling for power. But Britain, and all coalition contributors, must keep up the pressure on Jawad al-Maliki, the new Prime Minister, to name his Cabinet and enforce his authority over the country as soon as possible.

The suicide bombs, murders and threats by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda’s figurehead in Iraq, are intended to derail attempts to forge a consensus government. He wants instead to provoke the Shia militias into all-out civil war. Neither the British Army, nor the Iraqi Government, should be deflected from their determination to establish effective civil authority by the violence perpetrated by brutal nihilists against Iraq’s long-suffering people.