During Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s recent visit to Basra, it became clear that the British government would consider handing Basra over to Iraqi control as early as November this year. In justifying the move, British officials have emphasized the increased capability of Iraqi security forces. Statistics by Iraqi authorities of an alleged “70 percent reduction” in crime in Basra over a two-month period have also been quoted.
Even if these assertions were true, they would do nothing to remedy a more fundamental problem in the British plan to hand over power in Basra so soon: the decision appears to disregard local political developments by focusing only on the Iraqi army and performance-related criteria. While British military experts may have assessed the capabilities of Iraqi army units stationed in Basra, the handover decision does not seem to give due weight to the complicated ongoing political struggle in Basra, in which these units will soon play a critical role.
Competing Iraqi factions are currently fighting an intense behind-the-scenes battle for Basra. The main reason is oil: Basra has more of it than any other place in Iraq. In fact, more than 80 percent of the oil in the Shiite areas of Iraq is concentrated at the head of the Gulf, near Basra. This is why competing Shiite parties have a strong desire to control Basra, and why it is so significant that Basra remains outside the sphere of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), the party that wishes to create a single federal region south of Baghdad. Basra would be the crowning jewel of ISCI’s projected Shiite super-state, but right now forces with competing visions of the Iraqi state prevail locally—some prefer federal units on a smaller scale (one to three governorates), others remain staunchly Iraqi nationalist.
Britain is proposing to leave Basra while two key processes in this battle are still unfolding. The first is the struggle over the governorship. Since 2005, the Fadila party, which prefers to see Basra as a small-scale federal entity of its own, has held on to the governor position. In murky circumstances a vote of no confidence in the governor was passed last spring, but Fadila remains in office because the legality of the decision has been questioned. The second development is the federalisation process in Iraq south of Kurdistan, due to begin in April 2008. That is when Iraqis can start making initiatives to convert existing governorates into federal regions, and if more than one federal project is launched, there will be pre-referendum polls to decide which scheme the population will vote on. Undoubtedly, the competing local factions will fight particularly hard to control the governorate during this critical period of transition, but if power has already been handed over to the Iraqis, Britain will have much less opportunity to intervene.
The British attitude to this question has always been to stand back from the local struggle and refrain from blatantly choosing sides. Contrast this with the US-controlled Shiite areas, where Washington has clearly allied itself with one particular Shiite faction—ISCI. A more varied political landscape has been allowed to develop in the British areas, with Fadila in power in Basra and Sadrists controlling the Amara governorship. The Iraqi army to which Britain now proposes to cede power, however, is not necessarily seen as a neutral player. The Fadila party in particular has complained loudly that elements of the leading security and military establishment in Basra represent their enemies in ISCI, rather than a neutral governmental force. To the large majority of Basra citizens who enjoy no militia protection at all, this means that more dangerous times lie ahead.
Even if the idea of a gradual withdrawal of British forces from Iraq is a sound one, the specific timing that is now being considered seems unwise and strikingly detached from the local political process. The immense size of the energy resources involved makes Basra an extraordinary case, in which the prospect of internal violence between competing Shiite factions is unparalleled. A more prudent course of action would be to delay the British withdrawal until after the issue of governorship has been solved and the first initiatives for federal regions have been presented.
Reidar Visser is a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and editor of the Iraq website Historiae. His latest books are Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq and, with Gareth Stansfield, An Iraq of Its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy?
Related Materials from the Atlantic Community
- European Expert Survey: Premature US Withdrawal Could Threaten Europe
- European Expert Survey: Europe Should Help Iraq, But Not Follow US Lead
- European Expert Survey: Europeans Want American to Stay in Iraq
- Jan-Friedrich Kallmorgen on General Petraeus’s Iraq: Before=After