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Iraq: Bringing Security To The Chaotic South

Local police in Al-Basrah are reportedly dominated by militias and incapable of keeping the peace (epa) PRAGUE, May 17, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- President Jalal Talabani told reporters at a May 15 press briefing in Baghdad that the Presidency Council has formed a committee to look into the deteriorating security situation in Al-Basrah, where rogue militias now run rampant as the political parties supporting them vie for power.

Describing the ongoing assassinations, threats, attacks, and "security chaos" in the southern city as an "urgent situation," Talabani announced that Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi would head the committee, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported on May 15.

'Security Chaos'

The security situation has deteriorated to such a degree that it is difficult to discern whether there are any legitimate, nonpartisan security forces operating there now.

Rampant violence continues, with Shi'ite militias fighting each other and enforcing their brand of Islam on the public. The militias have also launched a campaign of attacks and assassinations against members of the Sunni Arab community.

Meanwhile, tribesmen killed eight policemen in a revenge attack on a local police station on May 15, after men wearing police uniforms killed Al-Basrah chieftain Hasan Jarih al-Karmashi.

Governor's Intentions Suspected

Al-Basrah Governor Muhammad Musbih al-Wa'ili on May 13 accused two representatives of Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of inciting violence in the governorate, RFI reported the same day. He also accused Iran of interfering in governorate affairs. Al-Wa'ili's Al-Fadilah Party is not on good terms with Iran, which supports other political parties active in Al-Basrah.

Al-Wa'ili also announced the suspension of Al-Basrah's police chief and called on Defense Minister Sa'dun al-Dulaymi to dismiss the commander of the army's 10th Division for incompetence. At first glance, it appeared that the governor had the support of tribal leaders in the city against rogue militias operating there. But some observers have said that the allegiance of tribal leaders is little more than lip service, and their leaders' true loyalties lie elsewhere.

Meanwhile, British commanders in Al-Basrah are less than impressed with the governor's performance. Robert Collett, a spokesman for the U.K. Consulate in Al-Basrah, said that Britain did not "recognize" the validity of al-Wa'ili's claims, reported on May 15.
The situation in Al-Basrah now reportedly resembles Lebanon before the civil war broke out.

A source familiar with the situation in the city who asked not to be identified told RFE/RL on May 16 that every political party operating in Al-Basrah -- from the governor's Al-Fadilah Party, to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Islamic Al-Da'wah Party, Hizballah, and those civilians loyal to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr -- has its own militia.

The situation in the governorate now resembles Lebanon before the civil war broke out, the source said. The police force is dominated by members loyal to their parties or militias, with each competing for control. The public is helpless against the dominant militias.

The Al-Basrah Governorate Council was appointed by the dominant political parties, and remains in power despite the rampant attacks and killing, lack of services, and corruption. The council rubber-stamps the decisions of the parties and does not effect any real change on the political scene.

Public Disappointed In British Peacekeepers

The source told RFE/RL that the general public believes that British forces stationed in Al-Basrah have done little to bring order to the situation. Initially, people welcomed the arrival of British forces in 2003 after decades of arrests, torture, and killings at the hands of Saddam Hussein's regime, and they were impressed that the British did not apply the same tactics used by U.S. forces in Baghdad and other areas that caused friction with locals, such as intrusive searches.

British troops in the south are increasingly helpless

But there was a price to be paid for such a policy -- militias solidified their hold on the governorate, and particularly, the capital city of Al-Basrah. British forces saw the kidnappings, killings, and crime, but they did nothing, the source claimed.

There were indications early on that Britain's failure to police Al-Basrah was contributing to the rise of militias in the city. In January 2004, British media uncovered the existence of a secret police force operating in Al-Basrah. The members of the Istikhbarat al-Shurta (Police Intelligence) unit were accused of kidnapping, detaining, and even killing former Ba'ath Party members. British forces were reportedly aware of the group's activities, London's "The Sunday Times" claimed.

A senior commander of the unit told a "Sunday Times" reporter that the unit employed members of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq's (SCIRI) armed wing, the Badr Brigades.

Last year, British forces declined to get involved when militias led a crackdown on university students in the city. A student explained the complex security situation at the time to Radio Free Iraq, saying that the intelligence services were supported by militiamen loyal to SCIRI, while the police supported al-Sadr militiamen, who led the crackdown on the students.

The Governorate Council was unable to protest the situation due to its weak position vis-a-vis the militias, while Iraqi army forces sat by and watched militiamen round up students, the student said.

Too Late to Change?

Today, it seems that British forces cannot be expected to change much. According to local media reports, the situation has deteriorated to such a degree that it would take years, not months, to sort out.

Militias continue to operate with impunity, as evidenced by a series of increasingly brazen attacks against British forces in recent months. Last week, Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army openly claimed responsibility for the downing of a British helicopter in Al-Basrah earlier this month.

Governor al-Wa'ili suspended contacts with British forces in Al-Basrah in February, but said last week he was canceling that decision. But with his sincerity in doubt, and the Britain's apparent disinterest in taking on the colossal challenge of enforcing order, locals have little hope of change, particularly as the British military turns its focus to drawing down its numbers this year.

Indeed, a recent Danish intelligence report said that the security situation in Al-Basrah has gone from bad to worse, "Berlingske Tidende" reported on May 12. Danish troops are stationed alongside British forces in the area.

British forces did take steps to strip some police forces of their weapons in April, after a surge of kidnappings were linked to members of the police. But with the police so intimately tied to militias, such actions will have little impact, as the militias could easily resupply police forces loyal to them.

Nor is it likely that security forces dispatched from other areas of the country could bring order to Al-Basrah in the near term. Baghdad-based security forces would be ineffective, since they too are tied to militias loyal to Shi'ite parties, while stationing Kurdish brigades in the region would be a recipe for civil conflict. Vice President Abd al-Mahdi, a respected Shi'ite leader, can likely calm the situation through dialogue. However, it will not change the inherent problem facing the governorate.

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