Tuesday, May 15, 2007


Battle for Basrah

(Reuters) - Basra, the richest city in Iraq and gateway to the Gulf, could erupt into all-out war between rival Shi'ite groups seeking control of its vast oil wealth as British forces prepare to draw down. The power struggle between factions of the Shi'ite majority that has dominated Iraqi politics since the first post-war general elections in 2005 threatens to affect oil exports accounting for virtually all of Iraq's income.
In the latest development of a turf war that has all the ingredients of a gangster movie set in 1920s Chicago, rivals of the provincial governor fell one vote short of voting him out of office last month but have pledged to keep up the standoff. Basra, Iraq's second largest city, is more or less free of the car bombs and the violence between Shi'ites and Sunni Arabs raging in central Iraq, but it has descended into a chaos of its own. Sporadic militia battles, endemic corruption and death threats now scar the once tranquil port.
"Everyone's trying to grab resources and make a quick profit without considering a long-term programme or attempting to establish a power base for the future," said Peter Harling, an analyst for the International Crisis Group who focuses on Iraq. "The interesting thing about violence in Basra is that it's not related to the two big factors of violence elsewhere: fighting the occupation and sectarian violence," he said.
Residents fear that violence could be a sign of things to come, especially as British troops disengage from the south. Britain, which has already turned over three southern provinces to Iraqi control, is poised to reduce its 7,000-strong force in Basra to about 5,500 by the beginning of June.
The power struggle involves militias and politicians loyal to young Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the Fadhila party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC). Locally powerful Fadhila, which controls key oil industry jobs in Basra, opposes the creation of a Shi'ite "super-region" espoused by SIIC, the dominant Shi'ite faction in Iraq.
Basra Governor Mohammed al-Waeli, from Fadhila, wants a Basra region of its own, independent from Najaf to the north, seat of the Shi'ite political establishment but bereft of oil. "Federalism is a large factor behind the dispute," said one Fadhila official who declined to be identified. Waeli could not be reached for an interview despite several requests by Reuters.
One of Waeli's main opponents, former governor Hasan al-Rashid from SIIC's Badr Organization, said his allies had received death threats warning them against deposing Waeli. "There are several points why we are opposed to him, including Basra's worsening security and his constant absence from the provincial council," Rashid told Reuters.
Some in Basra are worried that a British withdrawal would encourage groups to use force to control the oil fields. With sabotage halting exports in northern fields, the Basra terminal is essentially Iraq's only source of income at present. Attacks by suspected militants against British forces are on the rise -- April was the deadliest month for British troops since the first month of the war -- but a spokeswoman for the British consulate in Basra played down fears of political warfare after the planned reduction in British forces.
COMMENT: The 'word on the street' is that the recent clashes in Basrah actually have nothing to do with serving the people. The actual reason for this fighting is: oil smuggling revenue; reconstruction contracts; and Iranian influence. COMMENT ENDS.

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