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Iraq Report: March 28, 2008

Al-Basrah Clashes Could Prove Ominous

By Sumedha Senanayake

Iraqi security forces in Al-Basrah on March 25

Fierce clashes between radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, and government forces in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah have sparked concern that the situation could quickly spiral out of control.

The fighting initially broke out after the Iraqi government launched a major military operation, Sawlat al-Fursan (Attack of the Knights), in the city in an attempt to restore order. Al-Basrah has been mired in violence and thuggery for months -- since the pullout of British forces -- as rival militias and criminal gangs vie for control of the port city. While the major actors in the Al-Basrah power play are the Al-Fadilah Party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, (ISCI) and the Sadrists, reports suggest that the operation was focused primarily on the Sadrists.

Al-Sadr has responded with a call for nationwide acts of civil disobedience, and senior leaders within his group have issued veiled threats that continued targeting of Sadrists will lead to a "civil revolt." The violence in Al-Basrah has also spread northward to the towns of Al-Kut and Al-Hillah, well as to the Baghdad slum of Al-Sadr City.

The fighting in Al-Basrah and beyond might indicate an unraveling of the cease-fire called by al-Sadr in August that is credited with reducing the overall level of violence. If that is the case, then Iraq could be headed toward another bloody cycle of violence.

The operation in Al-Basrah looks like a bold display of force by the Iraqi government. It could signal the government's increasing assertiveness as it takes over greater security responsibilities from the British, who handed much of the governorate over last year. The operation was planned and carried out entirely by the Iraqi military -- aside from some air cover by multinational forces -- and it could provide a crucial test of the government's ability to stand on its own.

Success could hand Prime Minister al-Maliki and his beleaguered government a major political victory. Critics have maligned al-Maliki as a weak and ineffectual leader, and a decisive victory in Al-Basrah could strengthen his position in the eyes of Iraqis and the broader Arab world.

But the Al-Basrah campaign is also a calculated risk that could prove disastrous for the prime minister if it goes awry, particularly as al-Maliki is personally overseeing it. The perception could arise that he drastically overestimated the ability of his forces; if the operation becomes protracted and casualties mount, it could result in a severe public backlash.

Moreover, anything short of a relatively quick and decisive victory could indicate that Iraqi forces are still unprepared to assume responsibility for national security. Such a scenario has repercussions for the presence of British troops, who have been training Iraqi forces in Al-Basrah. With the handover of much of Al-Basrah to the Iraqi authorities, there has been considerable pressure in Britain to withdraw the remaining 4,100 British troops in the region. But the reduction of British troop numbers in Iraq is predicated on the assumption that Iraqi forces will be able to take over security operations in the region.

Why Now?

There appear to be several factors behind the timing of the al-Maliki government's launch of these Al-Basrah operations. First, Al-Basrah is vitally important to Iraq's economy and to its overall stability, and any significant volatility in that southern city would be keenly felt throughout the rest of country. The city is Iraq's only major port and oil hub, and insecurity there would endanger the export of Iraq's main commodity: oil. Al-Basrah is the departure point for nearly 90 percent of Iraq's oil exports to world markets.

Second, the security situation in Al-Basrah has deteriorated to the point where the Iraqi government had little choice but to act to restore order. Reports suggested that armed groups had taken over hospitals and universities in an effort to impose their brand of religion or political agendas.

Al-Basrah's female residents also came under increasing pressure, including threats and harassment for wearing what their accusers considered inappropriate attire. In a March 20 report in "Al-Azzam," residents were gripped by fear after the discovery around the city of several women's mutilated bodies. Police officials claimed they arrested an armed gang that eventually admitted to killing nine women, but local officials suggest that other similar gangs operate relatively unhindered in the city.

Sadrist fighters in Al-Basrah on March 26

Finally, the deteriorating situation in the city might have created an ideal pretext for the preeminent Shi'ite party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), to remove or weaken its main political rival, the Sadrists. The ISCI has kept a wary eye on the growing influence of al-Sadr's political movement in southern Iraq.

The ISCI might also have been spurred to action by the Presidential Council's approval on March 19 of the governorates law, which should pave the way to provincial elections on October 1. There is a widely held belief that the Sadrists are poised for huge gains in the Shi'ite-dominated south in the October ballot. The ISCI, the single-most-powerful political entity in the ruling coalition, could use the chaos in Al-Basrah to press al-Maliki to move against al-Sadr's followers, the Al-Mahdi Army, in a bid to significantly weaken the group before the voting.

While the ISCI's militia (the Badr Organization) has been involved in the power struggle in Al-Basrah, most reports suggest that the main target has been the Al-Mahdi Army. That would lend credence to the argument that there are motives to the military operation beyond the reimposition of law and order in Al-Basrah.

Indeed, such a notion was underscored by Sheikh Ahmed al-Ali, a representative of al-Sadr's movement in Al-Basrah, in an interview with Al-Jazeera satellite television on March 25. Al-Ali alleged that while "this ongoing operation in Al-Basrah appears to be security-related,... in fact, it is a political one."

Cease-Fire In Jeopardy

U.S. military officials have stressed repeatedly that one of the main reasons for the steep drop in violence during the U.S. troop surge is the cease-fire declared by al-Sadr in August. With the massive Iraqi military operation under way in Al-Basrah, that agreement clearly is in serious jeopardy.

The Sadrists accuse the U.S. and Iraqi forces of exploiting the truce to arbitrarily arrest al-Sadr sympathizers. The Al-Basrah operation could push al-Sadr to abandon the cease-fire and call on his militia to return to the streets in self-defense.

The collapse of the cease-fire could have disastrous consequences for Iraqi stability. The relative lull in assassinations, bombings, and kidnappings that accompanied it might end, wiping out some of the gains of the U.S. "surge" in Baghdad and its surrounding areas.

Continued instability in Al-Basrah and in the south might also force the United States to intervene. Already burdened with trying to root out Al-Qaeda in Iraq and stabilize the central regions, U.S. planners can ill afford to shift valuable resources to quell a major conflict in the south.

Sumedha Senanayake is an RFE/RL contributing analyst

Reconciliation Conference Underscores Political, Sectarian Rifts

By RFE/RL contributing analyst Sumedha Senanayake

Many Iraqi leaders have expressed doubts that Prime Minister al-Maliki's government can advance reconciliation

On March 19, Iraq concluded a two-day national reconciliation conference in Baghdad. The organizers of the conference billed it as an opportunity for Iraq's disparate factions to come together in order to discuss their differences.

While the conference ended with a flurry of positive rhetoric, there were distinct indications that deep political and sectarian fissures persist.

Some Reasons For Optimism

In his inaugural speech to hundreds of religious and political leaders, Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki described national reconciliation as a "life boat" that would lead Iraq toward stability. He noted that the country was making significant strides toward healing sectarian and political rifts, citing the passage of Iraq's $48 billion 2008 budget and the Justice and Accountability Law, which allowed former Ba'athists to return to their government posts.

After the conference, conference spokesman Tashin al-Shaykly said the participants pledged to work together to foster national unity and build a stable Iraq. "The groups participating in the conference affirmed their commitment to national principles and the unity of Iraq's land and people," he said. "They denounced terrorism and rejected ways of forcible relocation practiced against Iraqi people. The conference's preparatory committee, through the state's Ministry of National Dialogue, would submit the recommendations reached by the conference participants to the council of ministers."

Moreover, the conclusion of the conference coincided with the announcement by the Presidential Council that the governorates law had finally been approved. According to the Iraqi Constitution, the three-member council must approve all legislation passed by parliament. The council had earlier vetoed the law after Shi'ite Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi had voiced displeasure at the provisions in the legislation allowing the prime minister to remove regional governors from office.

Al-Mahdi and his party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), had vociferously objected to giving the prime minister more authority, and called for more power to be placed in the hands of the governorate councils. Having the law passed by parliament only to languish in a rancorous debate between members of the Presidential Council was seen as a major setback for the political process.

Thus the council's reversal was something of a political breakthrough. A continued delay in passing the legislation as the conference was being conducted threatened to embarrass the government and undercut the spirit of the conference.

Notable Absences

While the conference emanated a sense of optimism, there were clear signs that the it had failed to achieve even its most basic goals. Conference spokesman al-Shaykly said that invitations were sent to 700 people, but only 375 attended. Among the notable absences were former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's Iraqi National List, the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance (Al-Tawafuq) Front, the National Dialogue Front, and the Muslim Scholars Association.

Members of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's political movement initially attended the conference, but then walked out, calling it a public relations ploy by the government. The head of the Sadrist bloc in parliament, Nasir al-Rubay'i, said his group did not believe that the government would produce concrete results.

Some refused to attend after being disillusioned with the empty promises the government had made at previous gatherings. This view was echoed by Harith al-Dari, leader of the Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association, in a March 22 interview with Al-Jazeera satellite television. Al-Dari alleged that his group was not even formally invited to the conference because its positions clashed with the policies of the Shi'ite-led Baghdad government.

"We were not invited and if we were invited, we would not attend because we attended two previous conferences and reached agreement on certain things, but the government and ruling parties evaded them. We will not get into another experience with them in order not to give this government, which destroyed Iraq and its people, another chance," al-Dari said.

A more stinging walkout was by Sheikh Ali Hatam Sulayman, a prominent Sunni tribal leader and a leading figure in the Al-Anbar Awakening Movement. His group has been widely credited with driving Al-Qaeda out of the western region.

The so-called "Al-Anbar model" of establishing "awakening councils" with local tribesman has been duplicated in eight other governorates with significant success, and Prime Minister al-Maliki has repeatedly praised them. However, after the opening speeches, Sulayman abruptly left with his delegation and described the conference as "a failure, because the Iraqi politicians are a failure."

Deep Rifts Remain

While holding the conference was undoubtedly a positive event, the large number of factions that boycotted, avoided, or walked out of conference demonstrated that the deep rifts among Iraqi political groups and ethnic groups are still quite prevalent. Their absences also undercut the legitimacy of the conference itself.

One of the basic initiatives regarding the national reconciliation process was to assure Sunni Arab groups and parties that the current Shi'ite-led government was moving toward an agenda that was inclusive. Analysts have repeatedly noted that the "insurgency" is primarily the result of Sunni fear and rage at being excluded from the new political realities in post-Hussein Iraq. Not having the largest Sunni Arab political bloc in parliament, the Iraqi Accordance Front, present arguably defeats the purpose of even having a reconciliation conference.

In addition, members of the outlawed former Ba'ath Party or representatives of the insurgency were not on hand, either. It was unclear whether an invitation was even extended to them.

Members of the governing Shi'ite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, said the absences were a selfish act by a few groups that hindered the formation of a strong Iraqi government. Nevertheless, what was clearly apparent was that a genuine dialogue between disparate groups with opposing agendas failed to occur.

While the year-old U.S. troop surge and the subsequent drop in violence was meant to create a window of opportunity for the Iraqi government to promote reconciliation, it remains unclear whether Iraq has the collective political will to have a comprehensive dialogue between its different factions, let alone achieve reconciliation.