Basra Problems Bode Ill for U.S. Iraq Strategy – Report

Courtesy Alister Bull

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Violence and infighting among Shi’ites in Basra are a warning that a last ditch U.S. plan to improve security in Iraq is badly flawed, a think-tank said in a report.
“The answer to Iraq’s horrific violence cannot be an illusory military surge that aims to bolster the existing political structure and treats the dominant political parties as partners,” said the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

The report, issued late on Monday, said that Operation Sinbad, in which British forces tried to tackle armed militias and support Iraqi security forces in the southern oil-rich city of Basra, offered important lessons to learn from.

The current U.S. strategy in Baghdad — a four-month-old offensive aimed at ridding neighbourhoods of gunmen, deploying soldiers to hold the areas and then reviving economic activity — appears similar to the British plan launched last September.

Sinbad initially helped calm Basra, Iraq’s second largest city and its economic hub, but violence has since mounted and British forces have come under increasing attack there.

Britain recently reduced its troops to around 5,500 soldiers from about 7,000. The forces are also withdrawing to a single base outside the city at Basra airport.

Armed militias in Basra have meanwhile joined local security forces, but remain loyal to the Shi’ite political factions that dominate southern Iraq, the report said.

It said part of the Basra police was under the sway of the Mehdi Army of fiery cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, while the intelligence service was influenced by the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, previously the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and the Oil Protection Force was controlled by Fadhila.

“Far from being a model to replicate, Basra is an example of what to avoid. With renewed violence and instability, Basra illustrates the pitfalls of a transitional process that has led to the collapse of the state apparatus,” the ICG report said.

Much of the tension in Basra revolves around competition for control of southern Iraq’s vast oil reserves as British forces draw down.

U.S. President George W. Bush has sent 28,000 extra troops to Iraq in a major effort to reduce violence that has pushed the country to the brink of all-out sectarian civil war.

U.S. public opinion has swung against U.S. involvement in Iraq and there is growing pressure to start bringing troops home.

The lesson from Basra was that political parties did not respect the law and were part of the problem, the ICG said.

“Basra teaches that as soon as the military surge ends and coalition forces diminish, competition between rival factions will surge,” the ICG said.

“Prolonging the same political process with the same political actors will ensure that what is left of the Iraqi state gradually is torn apart… The priority is to confront the power structure … by insisting on genuine political compromises.”


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