Basra, Britain's Mesopotamian mess revisited By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - Alarms are ringing in London that the British army is being severely
defeated in Iraq, as the city of Basra (where its 7th Armored Brigade has been
based since 2003) slips rapidly into uncontrollable sectarian violence.
Basra has always been troublesome. From there, two uprisings were launched
against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and 1999, only to be crushed with great force by
the currently imprisoned dictator. British officials, though, refuse to accept
the reality that since entering the city on April 6, 2003, they have done
nothing to eradicate sectarian militias, and violence is now exploding in the
southern Iraqi city, with nobody able to bring it to a halt.
Unrest escalated when a British helicopter was shot down in Basra on May 6 by a
shoulder-launched missile, killing five British
troops. British Defense Minister Des Browne, learning from his US counterpart
Donald Rumsfeld, played down the event, calling it "an isolated incident" that
had been "magnified" by the press. Coinciding with Browne's statement was a
roadside bomb that killed two British soldiers in Basra this Monday, bringing
the number of British deaths in Iraq since 2003 to 111.
British troops can no longer travel on foot, for fear of
ambushes, and have to use helicopters as taxis. As London digests this
"magnified" reality, it plans to present the Iraqi police force in the south
with 814 new cars, costing a total of US$145 million.
Basra, a predominantly Shi'ite city, has been won over from the British by the
rebel-cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The young rebel gained the minds and hearts of
the inhabitants of Basra when he began his rebellion against the Americans, and
then-prime minister Iyad Allawi, in 2004. The people of Basra originally
welcomed the British as liberators, but the expression on everybody's face was:
"Thank you for what you did and for helping us get rid of Saddam. Now, when are
Muqtada found an excited crowd willing to listen to his anti-Anglo-American
rhetoric in 2004-05 and was able to recruit members of the British-trained
Iraqi police force in Basra into his Mehdi Army, where they now serve as
undercover agents for Muqtada. By day, they officially patrol the streets and
gather information about logistics, and by night, they don the costume of the
Mehdi Army and pick fights with traditional enemies of Muqtada.
Today, Muqtada's pictures are plastered all over the streets of Basra, in the
police station and in the homes of private citizens, who pray for his long life
and good health, claiming that he is saving them from both the occupation and
the Sunni community. He has particular influence among the city's poor and
A Basra under Muqtada's control, however, means a mini-theocracy in Iraq.
Alcohol is banned and veiling is becoming a must. Women are warned to put the
veil on when they venture outdoors in Basra to avoid being harrassed by armed
militias. Merchants who sold alcohol have been executed or attacked.
In April 2004, sectarian violence claimed the lives of several Sunnis living in
Basra, including a university lecturer. Armed men also stormed a police
station, killing 11 policemen, then burned down two buildings.
As a result, Sunnis started to leave Basra for safer territory in central Iraq.
A "Stability Assessment" report prepared by the US Department of State
described the situation in Basra as follows: "Smuggling and criminal activity
[continue] unabated. Intimidation attacks and assassination are common.
Unemployment is high and economic development is hindered by weak government."
Last weekend, Mohammad Musabah al-Waili, the governor of Basra, dismissed the
city's chief of police, because he is known to support British plans to combat
the insurgency. In February, Waili had ceased all cooperation with the British
forces stationed in Basra.
Watching the events in Basra are the Sunni insurgents, the Iranians, the
Americans and ordinary Iraqi citizens. The Sunnis, insurgents and politicians
alike, are not pleased with what is happening in Basra because it means yet
another strategic household for Muqtada and Shi'ite militias in Iraq's second
city. Muqtada already has a stronghold in Sadr City in Baghdad.
The Iranians receive news of the chaos in Basra with mixed emotions. Inasmuch
as they enjoy seeing the British in paralysis, they fear the rise of Muqtada.
He is a man who opposes the portioning of Iraq and the creation of a southern
regime in the south, and challenges Iran's Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim for leadership
of the Iraqi Shi'ite community. They are not in a position, however, to oppose
or obstruct the chaos taking place in Basra and the rise of the Mehdi Army.
The Americans are speechless about Basra. For long, there was a conviction in
the occupying forces that Basra was a relatively quiet and safe part of Iraq,
because of the efficiency of the British in keeping control. That impression
has been destroyed, yet the Americans cannot send troops to Basra. This is too
difficult because of their concentration in other parts of Iraq where the Sunni
insurgency is raging, and because the people of Basra would not allow it.
A review of the Iraqi and other Arab press shows different views on who is
responsible for the chaos in Basra. Some blame Muqtada. Others blame the
British. The only person not being blamed, who should shoulder responsibility
for the chaos, is Prime Minister-designate Nuri al-Maliki. Every day he delays
creating a cabinet, and because of his stubbornness more lives are claimed in
Basra and Baghdad.
Since being named premier by President Jalal Talbani nearly a month ago, on
April 22, Maliki has repeatedly failed to create a cabinet that satisfies the
Sunnis, Kurds and secular Shi'ites. While everybody awaits his cabinet, none of
the officials currently in power are taking any responsible action, either in
bringing security to Basra, or improving services such as electricity, sewage
Maliki tried to assure his critics, promising to bring security to Iraq, disarm
militias, tango with the Sunnis and form a national-unity cabinet in a
remarkably short period of time. He has failed on all three counts. On
Wednesday, it was announced in Baghdad that his cabinet would finally see the
light of day on Saturday or Sunday. This might yet be wishful thinking.
All of what is happening in Iraq brings to mind a strong phrase once said by T
E Lawrence, the legendary British colonel who helped the Arabs in their war
against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. It has been repeated and
remembered today in some British dailies, because it is a mirror image of Iraq
in 2006. Lawrence wrote an article in The Sunday Times on August 22, 1920,
about the British role in Iraq, saying:
The people of England have been
led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with
dignity and honor. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our
administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a
disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary
cure. We are today not far from a disaster.
later, given the events in Basra, the British are once again in "a trap from
which it will be hard to escape without dignity and honor".