Forget About a Vacation in Basra for Now

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Forget About a Vacation in Basra for Now

Post by Ralph » Wed May 31, 2006 10:14 pm

From The New York Times:

June 1, 2006
Iraq's Premier Seeks to Control a City in Chaos

BASRA, Iraq, May 31 — Iraq's new prime minister made an urgent visit to this increasingly lawless city on Wednesday, imposing a state of emergency and ordering leaders to cease their violent struggle for power and allow order to return to this oil-rich region.

Once seemingly immune to the violence that has plagued the rest of the country, Basra Province, the heart of Iraq's Shiite south, has sunk into chaos. Shiite political parties and their militias are fighting to control the provincial government and the region's oil wealth, contributing to some of the worst rates of killing since the invasion, with 174 killings in the past two months — double the amount from the previous two months, according to the Basra police.

Trying to stamp his authority on the region, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki arrived here in an American helicopter with Iraq's Sunni Arab vice president and three other senior Iraqi officials, and he berated local leaders for the chaos. He ordered the Iraqi Army to take over Basra's streets — a demand that apparently came as a surprise to the British Army, which patrols the region, and that could prove difficult, as units would have to be brought from outside the city.

"I declare strongly and frankly that we will strike with an iron fist on all gangs that are manipulating security," Mr. Maliki said, addressing an auditorium crowded with political and tribal leaders and other Basra locals. "Security comes first, second and third."

It was the first serious test of Mr. Maliki's authority since he became prime minister last month and pledged to deal decisively with political militias and criminal gangs whose growing power is now threatening the existence of the Iraqi state.

The surge in violence has posed new difficulties for the British military, which has adopted more strenuous policing measures to contain it. In two operations on May 28, the British detained a total of 10 people and reported a large find of bomb materials.

"In our view, we need to do more, and that's what we're doing," Brig. James Everard, the commander of forces in Iraq's four southeastern provinces, said in an interview.

In May, nine British soldiers were killed, the second-deadliest month for the British since the invasion, exceeded only in January 2005 when the crash of a British military plane killed 10 soldiers.

Mr. Maliki spoke directly to the increased violence, using blunt language and a firm and measured tone.

"What are these assassinations?" he asked. "What is this killing? What are the gangs that kill and kidnap? What is going on in this city, which sacrificed so much through history?"

To a large degree, the violence has resulted from a power grab by Shiite factions that had been left practically on their own to run the region and impose their own version of democracy while American and Iraqi officials in Baghdad have fought insurgents elsewhere.

"Freedom of speech, freedom of expression: it just hasn't quite worked out the way it was planned," Brigadier Everard said. "They're not prepared to debate. They tend to do things at the end of a gun."

In a city that welcomed the American invasion, threats against Iraqis working for the American Embassy are now so widespread that they have not picked up its trash or pumped its sewers for three weeks.

One large prize is control of Basra's oil exports. The city is near the country's only seaport, and nearly all of Iraq's current exports flow through it. Political parties accuse one another of skimming from the flow and trying to control it.

"As long as we have parties, it's impossible to ensure security," said one of Basra's senior security officials. "If you print this," the official added nervously, "I'll be killed."

One of the ways the parties have wielded influence is through control of portions of this city's 15,000-man police force, which is about double the size it is authorized to have. Rival parties and gangs fight one another through their own police units. The police chief, Maj. Gen. Hassan Swadi al-Saad, has said he trusts only a fraction of his forces.

Mr. Maliki used the trip, his first as prime minister, as a warning to local leaders who have used the months that Baghdad was busy assembling a government to build their own fiefdoms and profit from their positions.

He specifically referred to the impotence of the police force, and directly rebuked political leaders for manipulating it.

"What worries us and hurts the heart of Iraq is that these apparatuses are practically helpless," he said. "It is impermissible to have a scared or disturbed military or police officer because of political interferences."

A plain model of Toyota, known by the people of Basra as Batta, Arabic for duck, has been used in so many assassinations that it has become synonymous with killing.

"Why can't we control this Batta?" said Wathib al-Amood, a member of the provincial council. "We are walking in the dark on a spiked floor."

At the heart of the struggle in Basra are political parties and a web of allegiances that is baffling to outsiders. The governor, Muhammad al-Waeli, belongs to the Fadhila Party, a religious Shiite party, which controls the most seats in the provincial council. A bloc led by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or Sciri, detests Mr. Waeli and wants to remove him, but has failed to garner the two-thirds majority needed to do it.

The struggle has raised questions about the balance of power between Baghdad and the provinces. A law drawn up under the former American administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, and that is still in effect gives the provinces full control over their police forces and their local governments, virtually cutting Baghdad out of the process — a fact that Mr. Waeli's supporters are quick to point out.

Aqil Taleb, a Fadhila Party member on the council, said that because of the law, removing Mr. Waeli would be difficult. "They can't get the votes they need," he said, adding, "Even Maliki can't change the governor without them."

The meeting with Mr. Maliki on Wednesday was attended by about 400 Basra citizens, including the governor, who arrived late, and the police chief, whom he has tried to fire.

The officials from Baghdad included Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab; Khalid al-Atiya, the deputy speaker of Parliament; Bahaa al-Aaraji, a Parliament member close to the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr, whose influence and militia in Basra are strong; and Safa al-Safi, the minister of state for Parliament affairs.

Mr. Maliki's political acumen was tested immediately. An hour after the meeting began, the discussion descended into a shouting match, with tribal sheiks hurling insults at the chairman of the provincial council, Muhammed Sadoon al-Abadi.

Mr. Abadi, of Fadhila, said local leaders had done the best they could with few resources and blamed the media for painting too ghoulish a security picture. "Don't put all the blame or all the mistakes or all the collapse on the local government here," he said.

Shortly after that, tribal sheiks began to shout from a few rows back.

"Liar!" one yelled. "None of this is true. You are a liar."

When organizers proposed that participants break for lunch, there was more shouting. "We don't want to eat, we want to talk!" someone said. "All the tribes are here and if we don't have a solution we will make a revolution."

Then, Mr. Maliki, dressed in a dark suit and tie, silenced them.

"My brothers, peace," he said, and led them in a quick prayer.

"The loudest voice is not usually the winner," he added.

While Mr. Maliki focused on security, Mr. Hashemi, the Sunni Arab vice president, took leaders to task on the oil industry and sectarian cleansing.

"I hoped to receive news from Basra that the Southern Oil Company exceeded its planned output," he said in a speech to the gathering. "I hoped that Basra ports would have attracted ships from the gulf."

"But unfortunately we have come to deal with a serious problem that has exhausted the poor people of Basra."

Ali Adeeb contributed reporting from Baghdad for this article, and an Iraqi employeeofThe New York Times from Basra.

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