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    Middle East
     May 20, 2006
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 you leaving?"

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 youth.

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.

Maliki's responsibility
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 and telephones.

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.
Ninety years 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".

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)

Iraq at the mercy of 'kingmaker' Muqtada (May 6, '06)

In Iraq, chaos by another name (May 3, '06)

Basra and the threat of disintegration (Oct 12, '05)

Britain, Iran playing with Iraqi Shi'ite fire (Oct 1, '05)


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