Continued Chaos in Basra

BY Herschel Smith
8 years, 2 months ago

Following or coincident with our own article on the recent Basra violence (The Battle in Basra), there are numerous commentaries and articles on the same subject.  We will assess some of the more interesting ones below.  In addition to the chaos in Basra, there is chaos in the blogs and main stream media reports.

The Small Wars Journal blog has an interesting roundup of links (Debating Basra) with summary paragraphs for each.  As usual, the SWJ editors are on the spot with valuable information.

At Abu Muqawama, Charlie has a post up offering suggestions as to what exactly might have happened to the British in Basra (Abu’s blog is friendly to the Brits and soft COIN doctrine, so this is an interesting take).  Charlie blames it on the possibility that “the Brits adopted a “peacekeeping” mindset in Basra and never really engaged in a broader COIN or CT effort. That meant that all the myriad Shi’a groups were able to pursue their (relatively) non-violent political agenda and consolidate control over the political levers of city.”

Relatively non-violent agenda?  Charlie has been reading too many books and hasn’t kept up with the goings on in Basra, and later Spencer Ackerman weighs in: “Withdrawing without any political strategy, as the British did from Basra, leads to a vacuum like the one we’re seeing now. Sadr rushes in. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq rushes in. The Fadhila party maneuvers between the two. Forces ostensibly loyal to the government, pinioned between all sides, find ways to accommodate the existing power on the streets. In other words: chaos.”

To read these two opinions, it’s as if the British had control of Basra and then for some inexplicable reason left without any political strategy (no military issues, just political machinations).  Such a view ignores the reality of the situation.  Let’s backtrack a bit and recap what we know (see Calamity in Basra and British Rules of Engagement).  In 2003, the British Army fished in the waters of the Shaat al Arab on their days off.  In early 2007, all troop movement in and out of the city were conducted at night by helicopter because it was deemed too dangerous to go on the road and it was too dangerous to fly choppers during the day,” said Richard Beeston, diplomatic editor of The Times of London.  Today, women in Basra are being beheaded by Islamist gangs by the hundreds.

In mid-2007 when the British retreated from Basra, they did so while telling the tall tale that since the very presence of the British themselves was causing the violence, it would be better if they just left.  In other words, no one would shoot at the British Army if the Army wasn’t there.  There wasn’t a rush of anyone or any faction into Basra.  They were already there and had control of the city.  The British never had control of Basra, and from the beginning it was left to Shi’a factions, criminal elements, Iranian proxy fighters (Badr, Quds), and the loss of Basra was a constant diminution of civilization up to the point that the British ended up behind barbed wire at the Basra airport, contributing nothing to the Iraq campaign.  We have already linked Nibras Kazimi who, in the update to his post, conveys the Iraqi sentiment concerning the British Army.  It isn’t flattering, and British Colonel Tim Collins knows and has said that the retreat from Basra has badly damaged the reputation of the British Army.

From my contacts in the Marines, they had always known that after securing the Anbar province, it was always a possibility that they would have to go in and clean up the mess left by the British in Southern Iraq.  There are now published reports that the Marines may get saddled with this chore.

Marc Lynch at Abu Aardvark has a very smart post in which he examines the idea that Iran is liquidating its no longer useful proxies, including Sadr.  This idea has some merit, since Moqtada al Sadr is currently in Iran, especially as seen against the backdrop of what Iran did with Hassan Nasrallah last year.  Nasrallah was demoted and the responsibility for military operations of Hezbollah were removed from him.

The Belmont Club questions the absurd narrative where Iran is trying to advance peace by restraining Sadr.  This theory follows closely in line with Amir Taheri’s silly New York Post article where he promulgated the idea that Tehran now worries about a premature Iraq exit, and wants stability in the region.  From the absurd to the sensible.

Reidar Visser has a sophisticated article entitled The Enigmatic Second Battle of Basra, in which he points out something that obviously troubled us when we wrote The Battle in Basra, writing “The Captain’s Journal is as concerned about the SIIC as it is the Sadrists, and maybe more so given how well they have been able to work into the political scene in Iraq.”  Visser writes:

… there is a discrepancy between the description of Basra as a city ruled by militias (in the plural) – which is doubtless correct – and the battlefield facts of the ongoing operations which seem to target only one of these militia groups, the Mahdi Army loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr. Surely, if the aim was to make Basra a safer place, it would have been logical to do something to also stem the influence of the other militias loyal to the local competitors of the Sadrists, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), as well as the armed groups allied to the Fadila party (which have dominated the oil protection services for a long time). But so far, only Sadrists have complained about attacks by government forces.

This is a powerful point, and undercuts Nibras Kazimi’s narrative of Maliki as in charge and powerful enough to retain control of Iraq and oust the Shi’a militias.

There are indications that the campaign in Basra may not be going as well as planned.

With the threat of a civil war looming in the south, Nouri al-Maliki’s police chief in Basra narrowly escaped assassination in the crucial port city, while in Baghdad, the spokesman for the Iraqi side of the US military surge was kidnapped by gunmen and his house burnt to the ground.

Saboteurs also blew up one of Iraq’s two main oil pipelines from Basra, cutting at least a third of the exports from the city which provides 80 per cent of government revenue, a clear sign that the militias — who siphon significant sums off the oil smuggling trade — would not stop at mere insurrection.

In Baghdad, thick black smoke hung over the city centre tonight and gunfire echoed across the city.

The most secure area of the capital, Karrada, was placed under curfew amid fears the Mahdi Army of Hojetoleslam Moqtada al-Sadr could launch an assault on the residence of Abdelaziz al-Hakim, the head of a powerful rival Shia governing party.

While the Mahdi Army has not officially renounced its six-month ceasefire, which has been a key component in the recent security gains, on the ground its fighters were chasing police and soldiers from their positions across Baghdad.

But Maliki says there will be no retreat.  “Iraq’s prime minister vowed Thursday to fight “until the end” against Shiite militias in Basra despite protests by tens of thousands of followers of a radical cleric in Baghdad and deadly clashes across the capital and the oil-rich south.”

Bill Roggio says that the current operation has been in the planning stages since the middle of 2007.  This Al Jazeera coverage (h/t Noah Shachtman) gives one the impression that the surge and strategy change had absolutely nothing to do with the the drop in violence across Iraq, but rather, the so-called ceasefire by Sadr is credited, this ceasefire being in danger of breaking down.

One of the many problems with this analysis is that it ignores the role that the British played, unwittingly, in the strengthening of the Sadrists.  Further, this analysis treats Basra as if it represents all of Iraq, and clearly it doesn’t.  At approximately 17:20 into this Charlie Rose interview of John Burns, you can see for yourself the role the British played in the release of Sadr who was actually in the custody of the 3/2 Marines in 2004.There are troubling aspects of the current campaign, but in the end, the SIIC is too deeply embedded into the political fabric to root out at the moment with military action, or so Maliki may think.  This is disconcerting, in that it continues Iran’s influence inside of Iraq.  But in the end, it may be too easy to see too many complexities in the campaign, thus missing the forest for the trees.

The British wore soft covers and went into Basra with the counterinsurgency doctrine learned from their experience in Northern Ireland.  As we said in COIN is Context-Driven, “whether Protestant or Roman Catholic, greater U.K. or English, the fact of the matter is that this was COIN among their own people.  They were the same, at least as compared to Iraq.  The religious, cultural, societal, and political framework was the same; the ethical morays were the same; the language was the same; and by and large the history is the same.  When the British landed in Basra, they may as well have been placed on a different planet.  Nothing was the same, and thus whatever the British learned in Northern Ireland instantly became irrelevant.”

Southern Iraq was not Northern Ireland, and the Shi’a gangs, criminals and Iranian proxy fighters were looking for the stronger tribe to rise to the top.  It did, and it wasn’t the British, due to no fault of their enlisted men, a failure that must be laid entirely at the feet of their command.  General Jack Keane recommends that the U.K. engage in a “surge” of its own in Basra.  But this misses the point.  There not only weren’t enough troops, the strategy was mistaken from the beginning and the British have spent their wallet on the campaign.  They no longer demand respect from the Iraqi people and thus have become merely baggage.

Today Basra is paying the price for their ill-conceived strategy.  The Basra problems are not, as so many main stream media reports have mistakenly said, proof of the failure of the surge, since U.S. troops are not now and have never been in Basra.  Nor is Sadr powerful enough to thwart the intentions of U.S. forces in Iraq.  It is frankly hard to imagine any more difficult a situation than Anbar a year or two ago.  One could have asserted the impossibility of pacification of Anbar because of the competing Sunni factions – al Qaeda, Saddam Fedayeen, Ansar al Sunna, holdover hard line Ba’athists, and all of the other groups – but the Marines prevailed.  They did so because they were the stronger horse (a notion that Osama Bin Laden has himself hailed as being important in this region of the world).  Until forces enter Basra who are seen as a stronger horse as compared to the Iranian-sponsored criminals, peace will not come to Iraq.

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  • GI

    Herschel good informative posting.

    I really think something that is missing in the media coverage about Basra is that the Iraqi forces fighting in the city are not the US military. It is going to take the Iraqi forces longer to clear out the city then the US military could. It took the US military weeks to clear out Fallujah a much smaller city then Basra after the second Battle of Fallujah.

    How can it be expected that Iraqi forces without their own internal artillery and air support can take Basra in a matter of a few days? It is going to take time but it appears the media is eager to declare defeat.

  • Herschel Smith

    Interesting comment, and you’re right. Although …

    I don’t think the Shi’a gangs are as well organized or united as the Sunni insurgency was, and they aren’t back by AQ. So we have a situation where a weak Iraqi army is taking on a militia that is weaker than they were in Anbar.

    The most remarkable thing is that we are talking about Basra looking like Fallujah, and the British have had “responsibility” for Basra since the beginning.

    Very telling, isn’t it?

  • GI

    Yes very telling and obviously the British soft COIN strategy in Basra was a failure.

    However I don’t think the US military should have to clean it up. I don’t think US soldiers and Marines should give their lives to clean up an intra-Shiite fight that the Iraqi government has the resources to handle themselves. Hopefully the US commanders in Iraq are making that very clear to the Iraqi government.

    By the way Mohammed Fadhil has a great posting about the politics of this intra-Shiite fight that is worth reading:

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This article is filed under the category(s) Basra,Britain,British Army,Iran,Iraq and was published March 28th, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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