With the British exit earlier this month, which some analysts say is a prelude to the 5,500-strong contingent’s complete withdrawal from Iraq, comes great uncertainty for this city: Will Iran bolster its strategic foothold? Will the Shiite militias control the streets? Is the Iraqi Army strong enough to mediate the fight between rival parties?
What happens here may provide a window on the future for the rest of Iraq.
If the British withdrawal from Basra succeeds in the sense that the region doesn’t fall apart or fall totally under the control of Iran, it could be an indicator that that the Iraqi military, police, and government are all farther along than we’ve thought. It could also mean nothing of the sort.
If the withdrawal fails, however, it almost certainly means that at least one of those institutions is not ready for prime time. What they’re up against:
Billboards glorify Mahdi militiamen who died fighting the British. Streets carry their names. Upon the British departure, the Mahdi Army claimed victory. It had been leading the fight against the occupation since its early days. On Sept. 8, thousands of militiamen roamed the city center in vehicles and on foot brandishing Mr. Sadr’s posters in what they billed as a “victory parade.”
They are trying to “falsely claim credit for ‘driving us out,’ ” says Maj. Mike Shearer, spokesman for the British forces.
In the fight between Shiite factions, Mr. Sadr’s army has emerged as the most formidable force.
The militia is said to number 17,000 in Basra alone and is divided into 40 company-size military units, according to a senior Iraqi security official. Little is known about their local leader, Muntasir al-Maliki, who had replaced a commander killed by British forces in late May, except what’s said about him having killed his own father a few years ago because he was an unrepentant supporter of the former regime.
They control multiple units in the 14,500-strong police force, and hold sway in hospitals, the education board, the university, ports and oil terminals, and the oil products and electricity distribution companies, says a Basra-based, Iraqi researcher.
The Iraqi army is stepping up its presence in the area, and the 14th Iraqi Army Division appears to be accelerating its formation. As for US involvement:
Asked on Wednesday if US troops may have to fill any void left by the British, General Petraeus said more Iraqi soldiers would be dispatched to Basra while American Special Operations soldiers would conduct pinpoint missions with their Iraqi counterparts as they did March 20, when they captured in Basra two senior leaders of the Mahdi Army and a Lebanese operative with the pro-Iranian militia Hizbullah.
One more thing to watch is what happens when the US-Iran conflict as our troops and their lackeys face each other more openly in a heavily-Iran-influenced area.