Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Battling for Power in Basra

Exerting military clout and carving up lucrative businesses are the order of the day in southern Iraqi politics.
By IWPR Reporters
The concrete walls that surround the Fadhila party's compound in Sharish, north of Basra city centre, resemble the barricades around the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad.

Last spring, fierce clashes erupted between Fadhila and the Mahdi Army, a paramilitary group loyal to radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Several people were killed on both sides and offices and buildings belonging to the two parties were destroyed.

Mediators from tribes and other political parties managed to end the fighting but as Abu Ali al-Baaj, a mid-level Mahdi Army commander, put it, "The tensions were not buried for good.”

The reason for the battle was simple - as the governing party in Basra, Fadhila had replaced the head of the local electricity department, who happened to be a Sadr supporter.

Behind the façade of democratic institutions such as councils and the police force, Iraq’s second-largest city with about 2.6 million inhabitants, has fallen into the grip of competing militias who are as suspicious of one another as rival mafia families.

When the two militias began fighting over the post of electricity chief, the police force divided into factions which turned their weapons on one another. Police cars were used to transport militia members.

The Fadhila party runs the provincial council of Basra and controls most of the government institutions there. It was founded after Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled in April 2003, and holds 15 seats in the Iraqi parliament. With leading Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed al-Yaqubi as its spiritual leader, the party also features Basra’s governor Mohammed al-Waili among its leading members.

Basra had so little to lose and so much to gain from the demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime that, initially at least, it had all of the makings of a post-liberation success story.

The city had been neglected for at least a decade as punishment for its largely Shia population’s support for the 1991 rebellion against Ba’ath party rule.

To ensure that this southern region was kept under tight control, nearly all of Basra’s leaders subsequent to the revolt - from the security services to party officials and city administrators - were people appointed from Sunni-dominated central Iraq.

Basra has the only seaport and the largest oilfields in Iraq, but instead of returning to its past as an economic and cultural hub, untroubled by ethnic or confessional violence, it has instead become a symbol of the failure of the new political order.

Basra's political parties participated in the 2005 elections, and the British forces deployed here invested heavily in building up institutions including the security forces. When they handed power over to the locals, these parties were all that existed on the ground.

But both the parties and the official Iraqi security forces here have subverted all prospect of accountable governance.

Because the city is predominantly Shia, faith was not initially expected to be a major factor in local politics. But all the influential parties, including the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the Sadrists, Fadhila,and more opaque movements, such as Tharullah (The Revenge of God), all claimed legitimacy on Shia religious grounds, and justified their often violent activities as requirements of the faith.

Any party that was backed by a militia and had the capacity to grasp power did so with impunity, sometimes behaving more like criminal gangs than political forces, and the gap between political and paramilitary activity was blurred. These political groups used the electoral process to participate in a system whose founding principles they wilfully ignored.

Once in power, they did not seek either to build popular support or to govern effectively. A combination of poor administration and widespread intimidation lost them significant public support. Instead, their power lay in their ability to provide a protection force or exact revenge.

In the end, it becomes difficult to introduce a democratic system if the leaders do not respect the underlying principles such as public accountability, respect for minorities and fair elections.

As the London-based political analyst Ghassan al-Atiyyah, whose family originates from Basra, put it, "Without a date palm, you can’t have dates. Without democrats, you can’t have a democracy."

Except for electricity, which is delivered from neighbouring Iran and is now available about 20 hours a day, Basra's infrastructure has seen little improvement. The water supply is as bad as before the war, forcing the people to buy purified water. Refuse collection is worse than before, and rubbish is piling up in the streets.

Reconstruction work and healthcare, education and sewage treatment have seen very little progress. Local officials continually maintain that they are preoccupied with more pressing matters such as security, and that reconstruction is sacrificed as a result.

The dominant parties have little to offer in the way of programmes other than their rigid Islamist ideology. Women are forced under the veil, Basra's Christian community has left, and the parties spend much of their time blaming each other for the violence, corruption and mismanagement.

Madhi Army commander Baaj, for example, accuses Fadhila and governor al-Waili of delivering poor public services, presiding over corruption, and running a campaign of assassinations and abductions of members of rival groups. Although Basra is relatively secure by the standards of Iraq, police report that there are three to ten cases of killings and abductions by "influential actors” every day.

Baaj also accuses senior local officials of awarding tenders and contracts to relatives, and failing to ask questions when reconstruction projects are implemented poorly or late.

Fadhila member Abu Zaineb al-Edani, meanwhile, rejects claims that the party is responsible for violence.

Fadhila, he said, "is not engaged in sectarian violence and [population] displacement. We have refused to have a militia because that is something that cannot be controlled”.

He insisted that the party was doing a good job of governing the province, "Basra is doing better than Baghdad in terms of security and public services because of the direct guidance from Yaqubi and the plans made by governor Waili, in spite of the obstacles and restrictions created by [certain] senior officials. They are part of a violent campaign against Fadhila, accusing the party of stealing money and oil.”

According to Edani, rival Shia groups see Fadhila as a thorn in their side because it does not support their view that Iraq should be divided into federal units. “We're the only party that has a national agenda,” he said.

Yusif al-Musawi, secretary-general of the Islamist Tharullah party, agreed that there is "a heated dispute for control over the city”, but blamed the governor and his political allies for the violence.

“Ninety-nine per cent of killings and abductions are perpetrated by the [local] authorities,” he said.

Musawi says his party wants an efficient local government with staff appointed for their skills and abilities rather than according to sectarian quotas.

However, critics of Tharullah say it has built up a reputation for using force.

Dozens of people come to the party’s offices every day in the hope of getting their problems solved by the associated militia. Some may be seeking protection from other armed groups, while others may want to get a relative a job in the army or police.

When not dealing with such cases, Tharullah’s men have a reputation for assassinating former Ba’ath party members and alcohol traders, or freelancing as hit men for the highest bidder.

In the absence of effective formal mechanisms for redress, militias such as that of Tharullah have become the main dispensers of justice and patronage.

Musawi said proudly, "We have even set up a social affairs office for tribal reconciliation, to mediate between competing tribes and clans in the region."

However, peace-building has a different meaning in Basra.

One Tharullah commander explained the tactics for defeating Fadhila in the next local election, which is supposed to be held by the end of the year. "I have told all city council members, ‘You have to make a choice. You either vote against the governor or you die,’" he said.

The real conflict in oil-rich Basra is about who controls the resources. Illegal oil exports, which along with control over security and public resources, counts as the most important income source for all the parties, is carved up among them.

A fragile balance of power has evolved where Fadhila is in charge of the government’s oil protection force and, with it, the oil production infrastructure and export terminals. The Sadrists dominate in the local police force, the facilities protection service and the Basra port authority. Together with the small Iraqi Hizbollah party, they also have a strong presence in the customs police force, while the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council dominates the intelligence apparatus and the well-equipped commando units that formally come under the interior ministry in Baghdad.

Compared with Baghdad, Basra may look calm, but even a slight shift in the precarious balance may lead to a surge in violence.

Basra officials and politicians are already preparing for a fierce battle for control over the province if local elections are not held soon.

While Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is pushing for provincial elections to be held this year, a new electoral commission has yet to be formed.

Fadhila’s rivals want an election sooner rather than later, and warn of dire consequences if this doesn’t happen.

"We are prepared for the upcoming battle, and concrete barriers won’t save them [Fadhila],” warned Sadrist leader Musawi. "If the elections aren't held, we will use force to kick Fadhila out.”

Edani remained confident about the governing party’s chances, saying, "Many people are certain that Fadhila will lose the next provincial elections, but they will get a shock as we have a wide [support] base and we will stay in power.”

Whichever party wins, residents fear they will be the losers. Many say all they want is decent public services and accountable officials.

"The religious parties and coalitions plant fear and terror among people to make sure they keep their mouths shut," said Ahmed al-Hassawi, a traffic policeman. "This creates a terrorised community that can’t hold officials accountable even when they make mistakes.

“I don’t care about the name or approach of the party that runs the province - my concern is what they will provide for my children and me.”

However, Basra could be set for another bout of turbulence well ahead of any election. After Maliki dismissed Governor Waili, the Fadhila party threatened to mount protests on July 30. The protests were called off at the last minute, apparently after the party received assurances that Waili’s replacement would again be drawn from its ranks rather than from some rival group.

More IWPR's Global Voices