Talisman Gate

Friday, May 09, 2008

What Happened in Basra?

What Happened in Basra?

By NIBRAS KAZIMI May 9, 2008

Ever since the prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, launched Operation Cavalry Charge in Basra on March 25, which has been going on there and elsewhere across Iraq, three important conclusions can be drawn: the Iraqi state and the Iraqi army can function on their own; an influential figure in Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr, is much weaker than he was deemed to be; and Iran has bet on the wrong horse.

As a result of being unable to rely on Mr. Sadr’s organization, Iran would lose a menacing avenue for retaliation against America should Iran’s illicit nuclear program get attacked.

Basra had a moment of clarity, illuminating the convergence of several positive trends in Iraq. What’s driving these trends is a sense among regular Iraqis that their state has outlasted its challengers, whether they are Sunni insurgents, organized crime cartels, or hostile regional powers. Basra is “Exhibit A” for those who argue that Iraq’s remaining problems are fixable, that the achievements seen so far are irreversible, and that a sense of patriotic cohesion is salvageable and viable.

Consequently, the events in Basra do not sit well with those who have argued otherwise and staked their careers and credibility to the storyline that Iraq is irredeemable, such as the many journalists and pundits who have been covering Iraq over the last five years. This has seemingly induced them to fabricate a negative and false narrative in the hope that their predictions would go unchallenged.

Six weeks ago, Iraqi policemen in Basra were dodging RPG projectiles fired by teenagers. These days, though, they keep themselves busy with house-to-house sweeps in search for weapons caches. Moreover, on a daily basis, they issue hundreds of tickets for traffic and parking violations. Indeed, the situation in Basra has changed dramatically.

The violence in Basra was not sectarian in nature even though Iraq’s southernmost province — first in potential wealth with between 60% and 70% of the country’s oil and second, after Baghdad, in its population size — boasts a significant Sunni minority, as well as Christian, Mandean, and non-mainstream Shia denominations.

Basra’s chaos resulted from a unique mélange of Iranian meddling, proliferation of organized crime, and Britain’s unsteady hand in running military and political matters. The Americans had delegated Basra’s management to their British allies, who ended up ruining things in Iraq’s most promising piece of real estate.

However, it is not surprising that the British would mismanage a place that they had thoroughly studied a little over 90 years ago, the first time they came to occupy Basra as a result of World War I.

Basra was founded by the Arabs who invaded the city 1,400 years ago. They used it as an operating base against the Persian Empire. It became a military base in a land teaming with Jews, Christians, and Manichean peasants, all of various Semitic extractions.

In that intensely fertile land, a land open to the influences and trade of the Indian Ocean, many propagandists roamed and many bastard children were left by a passing sailor. Thus, the pure-bred Arabian tribes that were settled south of the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates were instilled with a distinct identity that meant that one’s roots in Basra would set one apart from those who originated in Baghdad or Nejd or Isfahan.

But something of the original mission against Persia seems to have survived among Basra’s original Arab tribes, for today it forms the backbone of the tribal elements that have flocked to Mr. Maliki’s side in his battle against the organized crime cartels — criminality that had found political refuge and patronage within the Sadrist movement.

This divide is historical in origin too: most of these Sadrists descend from destitute families that escaped the poverty and tribal hierarchies of the nearby Amara Province in the 1930s and 1940s. They were looking for menial work and if that was not available, they turned to a life of crime. Some of their kin also flooded into Baghdad, creating the human overflow in the slums that would become Sadr City. A derogatory name was coined for the boorish newcomer: shroogi or “easterner.” In the last five years, being a Sadrist was almost synonymous with shroogi ancestry.

Various troublemakers in modern Iraq have made up their unruly mobs with these dislocated social misfits. The Iranians are no different as they set about establishing a parallel contingency plan in Iraq that would unleash chaos and terror should America contemplate a war against Tehran. That is supposed to be Iran’s strategic deterrence.

Once Mr. Maliki launched Operation Cavalry Charge, the Iranians and the organized crime cartels that they have been patronizing realized that they were no match for a prime minister who is bent on their destruction. He had enough soldiers with armored vehicles to withstand that first volley of Iranian-supplied RPGs that were unleashed when his troops drove down previously no-go alleyways. Mr. al-Maliki also rallied the silent majority of Basra to reclaim their city after they had receded into the safety of their homes. The Iraqi state had endured the worst, and came back to reclaim its turf.

Mr. Maliki can draw upon a war chest of $60 billion from this year’s budget. He has enough bags of money to entice the bulk of the “shroogis” away from life on the margins and into the benevolence of the state. He offered them a newer sense of belonging within the ranks of the government-employed lower middle-classes.

Over the last five weeks, the Iraqi army has smashed through many myths that have been internalized by Iraq-watchers about the weakness of the Iraqi state, the strength of the Sadrists, and the omnipresence of the Iranians.

Last year, many had speculated that Mr. Maliki’s government would collapse as a result of a boycott by the Sadrists. Periodically since then, some have been holding their breath every time a confrontation between Messrs. Sadr and Maliki seemed imminent. Yet no lessons were drawn about who has the upper hand even though Mr. Sadr has been the one to back down at every juncture.

If some worry that the Iranians may unleash a Sadrist deluge against the Green Zone should America conduct a bombing run against Iran’s nuclear facilities this summer, then those worries should be downgraded. It seems now, as the Iraqi state keeps pressing on, that the Sadrists will fold easily.

Mr. Kazimi is a contributing editor of The New York Sun, and discusses Basra on his blog, Talisman Gate, talismangate.blogspot.com