Does Basra Tell Us What To Expect In Iraq? genre: Just Jihad

Basra

Those looking to understand the impact of the latest troop surge in Iraq might want to review the situation in Basra, the southern city previously occupied by British forces and frequently referred to as a model for the progress sought throughout the country. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the drawdown of troops, Basra has become a city of violence as competing sectarian groups are now battling for political supremacy and access to valuable oil reserves.

Three major Shiite political groups are locked in a bloody conflict that has left the city in the hands of militias and criminal gangs, whose control extends to municipal offices and neighborhood streets. The city is plagued by "the systematic misuse of official institutions, political assassinations, tribal vendettas, neighborhood vigilantism and enforcement of social mores, together with the rise of criminal mafias that increasingly intermingle with political actors," a recent report by the International Crisis Group said.

For the past four years, the administration's narrative of the Iraq war has centered on al-Qaeda, Iran, and the sectarian violence they have promoted. But in the homogenous south -- where there are virtually no U.S. troops or al-Qaeda fighters, few Sunnis, and by most accounts limited influence by Iran -- Shiite militias fight one another as well as British troops. A British strategy launched last fall to reclaim Basra neighborhoods from violent actors -- similar to the current U.S. strategy in Baghdad -- brought no lasting success.

Militias and criminal gangs are financed in part by stolen oil smuggled outside the country, even as Iraq lacks enough energy to provide electricity to many of its people. Both the oil industry and the port facilities -- providing Iraq's only maritime access -- have made Basra "a significant prize for local political actors," the ICG said.

The current U.S. security operation to "clear, hold and build" in Baghdad and its surroundings is almost a replica of Operation Sinbad, which British and Iraqi forces conducted in Basra from September 2006 to March of this year with a mission of "clear, hold and civil reconstruction." Although Operation Sinbad initially succeeded in lowering crime and political assassinations, attacks rose in the spring and British forces withdrew into their compounds.

In a recent BBC interview, Air Chief Marshal Jock Stirrup, chief of the British defense staff, insisted that Basra has been a success. But he acknowledged that judgment depended on "what your interpretation of the mission was in the first place," adding: "I'm afraid people had, in many instances, unrealistic aspirations."

The mission, he said, was simply to "get the place and the people to a state where Iraqis could run this part of the country, if they chose to."

While some may be surprised by the deterioration in Basra, I would argue that it actually typifies what has been happening in Iraq during much of the occupation. In what many have called a game of whack-a-mole, the limited numbers of troops have facilitated a process whereby security is achieved in designated areas but soon after the troops are relocated to other hot spots, the chaos and violence resumes.

The results in Basra suggest that the latest U.S. troop surge in Baghdad may be destined for the same disappointing outcome. Keep in mind that over the course of the occupation, added troops have been sent into Baghdad with similar initial success...only to be followed by growing unrest.

Adding to the problem is the fact that the Iraqi security forces are poorly trained as well as plagued by sectarian influences such that they have often been responsible for much of the resurgent conflict. Hopes that the Iraqi security forces can assume a responsible role in the absence of coalition troops may well be unrealistic.

The war torn nation has been split along sectarian lines for decades and there is little reason to believe that those differences will be set aside once the U.S. led forces are reduced. The fact that Iraq is blessed with huge oil resources may only complicate the situation as groups jockey for political power in order to influence the distribution of the wealth. The inherent lack of trust undoubtedly leads each sectarian group to believe that having access to power will guarantee access to the untapped wealth.

In truth, the fact that this process has been unfolding for nearly five years ought to instruct those seeking to predict the potential for future success. It is hard to imagine that more time will mean more progress…unless of course one is talking about an occupation similar to that seen in the Korean peninsula. Unfortunately, it appears that change in Iraq will need to be a function of generational shift…a lengthy process that would require a U.S. presence for many years.

Given the overwhelming opposition to the ongoing occupation, it is hard to imagine a plausible solution that includes a lengthy U.S. presence. In the end, it appears that the Iraqi’s will have to find the means to resolve their differences sooner rather than later or face the prospect of chaos and violence for many years to come.

Tagged as: Basra, Iraq, Oil Reserves, Sectarian Conflict, Troop Surge

Daniel DiRito | August 7, 2007 | 8:34 AM
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