TOPICS > Nation

Security Situation Deteriorates in Basra

April 5, 2007 at 6:10 PM EST
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

MARGARET WARNER: Today’s attack in Basra capped one of the deadliest weeks for British soldiers since the war in Iraq began. This eyewitness said the blast ambushed the British patrol around 2:00 p.m. local time.

BASRA RESIDENT (through translator): A military convoy of about five tanks passed through here. A bomb exploded near them, just as they were passing through there. There were four dead, three or four injured, and one of the vehicles was completely destroyed.

MARGARET WARNER: The blast, plus small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, left four British soldiers dead, as well as their civilian interpreter. It brought the total of U.K. troops killed in operations in Iraq to 140.

Six weeks ago, Prime Minister Tony Blair announced Britain would start withdrawing a quarter of its Iraq force over the coming months.

TONY BLAIR, Prime Minister of Britain: What all of this means is not that Basra is how we want it to be, but it does mean that the next chapter in Basra’s history can be written by the Iraqis.

MARGARET WARNER: Some 7,000 British troops are currently stationed in Iraq, most of them in the Basra area, a port and oil hub in southern Iraq wedged between Kuwait and Iran, nearly 340 miles from Baghdad.

This once-wealthy city of 1.2 million, Iraq’s second-largest, is predominantly Shia. And it has been quieter than Baghdad, yet for months it’s seen violence between rival Shia militias and attacks on British forces.

Today, Prime Minister Blair contrasted the deaths of British soldiers in Basra with the safe return of 15 U.K. sailors and marines held captive in Iran.

TONY BLAIR: Just as we rejoice at the return of our 15 service personnel, so today we are also grieving and mourning for the loss of our soldiers in Basra, who were killed as a result of a terrorist act.

Now, it is far too early to say that the particular terrorist act that killed our forces was an act committed by terrorists who were backed by any elements of the Iranian regime, so I make no allegation in respect of that particular incident.

But the general picture, as I’ve said before, is that there are elements at least of the Iranian regime that are backing, financing, arming, supporting terrorism in Iraq. And I repeat that our forces are there specifically at the request of the Iraqi government and with the full authority of the United Nations.

MARGARET WARNER: Blair has said Britain’s ultimate goal is to hand over full control of the Basra province to Iraqi security forces, as Britain already has with two others.

Attack on British soldiers

Tom Parker
Yale University
Yes, I would be very cautious myself of linking the Iranian government to this attack. I mean, it's possible, I guess, but there are many insurgent groups, there are many local reasons for insurgency in Basra, as well.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on today's attack and the security situation in Basra, we're joined by Babak Rahimi, an assistant professor of Islamic studies at the University of California at San Diego. He was in southern Iraq in 2005 studying Shiite political groups.

And Tom Parker, a former British counterterrorism official, he worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad in 2003-2004 and was there again last year. He's been teaching terrorism studies at Yale University and is executive director of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center in New Haven.

Welcome to you both.

Professor Rahimi, this was an attack on this convoy of British soldiers, kind of a multi-pronged attack, it looks like. Who or what do you think is behind it?

BABAK RAHIMI, University of California, San Diego: Well, what I understand is that this happened in northwestern outskirts of city of Basra. I actually traveled there when I was in Basra in the summer of 2005, and one thing I know is that that's the hotbed of the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand, radical Shia Islamic cleric who is very much against the U.K. occupation and, of course, the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Now, my understanding is that they are the ones that perhaps carried this through, the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr. And to what extent Iran was behind this, I am not sure. But I don't think this was disconnected to what happened with the Revolutionary Guard and how they detained the 15 British soldiers and sailors back in last week.

And I don't think this is disconnected; this is very much linked to it. But, again, as far as providing some form of evidence to say that this was somehow basically instigated by the Iranian government, as Prime Minister Tony Blair said, I'm not sure about that.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Tom Parker, how do you see it? Who or what might have been behind this?

TOM PARKER, Yale University: Yes, I would be very cautious myself of linking the Iranian government to this attack. I mean, it's possible, I guess, but there are many insurgent groups, there are many local reasons for insurgency in Basra, as well.

It's certainly not the first time British troops have been targeted. I'm sure that there is probably some causal relationship to what's been going on with the seizure of the British sailors in the Gulf. But at this stage, it's way too early to say that you can point the finger at Iran specifically for this attack.

Shia factional violence

Babak Rahimi
University of California, San Diego
Basra is really the source of Iraqi export of oil and petroleum. So oil is playing a major role in the way in which all these different Shia factions are either competing or interrelating or interacting to one another.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, why don't you both help us understand the situation in Basra? Now, the conventional image, Professor Rahimi, has been that, you know, this is mostly Shia area. You don't have the Sunni-versus-Shia violence that you have up farther north where so many Americans are being killed and that the British had handled it pretty well. Is something changing? What is the situation there?

BABAK RAHIMI: Well, things haven't changed dramatically, but I think what has appeared in Basra for the last three or four years, since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, is that we're seeing the emergence of a number of different Shia groups that have been vying for power in the city and the province, and the competition has been mainly over, first and foremost, territory, which district which Shia faction would want to control, and also oil.

And, remember, Basra is really the source of Iraqi export of oil and petroleum. So oil is playing a major role in the way in which all these different Shia factions are either competing or interrelating or interacting to one another.

So I guess that's the situation right now in Basra. And with regards to the Sunni-Shia conflict, I don't think -- of course, you've been seeing this in Basra, because Basra's very much a Shia-dominated city, but also you have a huge Sunni population there.

At this moment, I think the Sunnis have been kind of marginalized, and they're not very much active in the Basra political scene. But what you're seeing right now is a kind of a struggle for these different Shia groups to represent the Shia identity and the Shia community in Iraq.

And this battle between the Shia groups has been going on for a while, and probably will go on for a while to come.

British forces' role in Basra

Tom Parker
Yale University
So there's been a lot of tension even with the recognized authorities in Basra; so it's a difficult operational environment for the British.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Tom Parker, then how did the British forces factor into this, into this struggle for power among rival Shia groups? Are they seen as being on any one side?

TOM PARKER: I think the British forces have tried very hard to avoid being seen as being on anybody's side, but I should point out that there's been friction between the British and the local security forces for the last couple of years.

In 2005, we had an American New York Times freelancer who was killed for investigating death squads operating inside the local police, Iraqi police. A couple of months after that, the British actually drove a tank or an armored personnel carrier through a jail to liberate two of its special forces soldiers who had been held by the police.

And then, only a couple months ago in December last year, you had the British raiding the serious crimes unit in Basra after allegations that they were holding prisoners and executing them.

So there's been a lot of tension even with the recognized authorities in Basra; so it's a difficult operational environment for the British.

MARGARET WARNER: But explain what the British strategy has been. I mean, why haven't they confronted some of these groups that are acting in extra-legal, extrajudicial ways?

TOM PARKER: Well, you know, the British have been doing things rather like this for several centuries now. We have a very evolved approach to -- I hesitate to say occupation, but to operating in other countries, which is to try and work with some local partners.

And that has been the way that the British built their empire and were able to hold their empire with a relatively small military force, and by getting alliances or building alliances with local political leaders and bringing them on board, bringing local people into their forces or operating auxiliary forces in support of the British military.

And this is very much the basic strategy that you see being employed in Basra. It's not quite divide and rule; it's perhaps better described as co-opt and rule.

Iranian involvement in Basra

Babak Rahimi
University of California, San Diego
[T]he Iraqi-Iranian relations is a historical one. It goes back to centuries, and many of these Iranians that are -- you could call them, say, Iranian officers -- they're also Iraqi.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Professor Rahimi, let's go back to Iran. And we all understand that Tony Blair did not say there was any evidence linking them to this attack, per se, but explain how deeply involved the Iranians are in Basra, and in what way, in what areas.

BABAK RAHIMI: Well, the Iranians have been involved in Basra immediately after the spring fall of the collapse of the Saddam regime, when we saw the British army basically taking over Basra.

Iranians, especially the intelligence officers, as far as I know, they have been kind of stationed in southern Iraq, especially the city of Basra. But I visited Basra two years ago, and I was informed by a number of Iraqis that they have met Iranian officers and have spoken to them, and also there's a lot of reverence and a lot of respect for these Iranians.

And also I should make a note that, again, you know, the Iraqi-Iranian relations is a historical one. It goes back to centuries, and many of these Iranians that are -- you could call them, say, Iranian officers -- they're also Iraqi. They speak fluent Arabic, and I guess you could say, for the last four years, they have embedded themselves in southern Iraq.

So with regards to the militaristic aspect, definitely Iranians have a lot of influence in southern Iraq, and we see a lot of Iranian officers traveling there. And also we are seeing how a number of these different Shia militia groups, and especially the Mahdi Army led by Muqtada al-Sadr, has been trying to kind of cozy up and get closer to Tehran for his own opportunistic reasons.

I don't think there's an ideological reason behind it, given the fact that the Sadrists are actually anti-Iranian, they're Iraqi nationalists, and they actually want to somehow limit the Iranian influence in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: So let me just follow up with you. When you said earlier you think there might be a link between the release of the 15, or rather that confrontation that took place and this, if there were a link, how would that have worked? What would it be?

BABAK RAHIMI: Well, I think that this is actually a very good question, because if that was the scenario, if the Iranian government was actually behind this recent event with the death of four British soldiers, then we're seeing something very comprehensive and very disciplinary happen on the behalf of Tehran.

I think, with regards to the 15 British soldiers that were captured by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the strong message was really not to the British but actually was to Washington, that if you do actually attack our nuclear facilities, this is the kind of a preview of what could happen to your soldiers.

And, also, you could link this recent event to what happened with the 15 British soldiers, that, look, in case you decide to attack us, we can also get involved in a proxy war. And we could unleash our Mahdi Army, these different Shia militia organizations, to kind of basically stop you and stop you attacking or violating our national sovereignty.

MARGARET WARNER: Tom Parker, how does that sound to you? How plausible?

TOM PARKER: Oh, it's certainly plausible, and it's a very persuasive scenario.

A couple of notes of caution that I would sound. We have to be a little bit careful about talking about Iran or Tehran as a monolithic group, because there are a number of different groups vying for power within the Iranian regime, reformists and conservatives.

The clerical establishment stand a little bit back from politics, while still controlling much of what goes on in the country. And at various points, I think even in this last crisis with the British sailors, you've seen various groups get the upper hand and then lose the upper hand.

And so the first thing to say is it's not necessarily the case that Iran is pursuing one grand strategy in the south of Iraq.

The second thing to say is that there's many legitimate reasons why the Iranians would have business in the south of Iraq. It's a logical place for Iran to have commercial interests. It's a logical place from a religious perspective to have Iranians traveling into Najaf. People forget Ayatollah Khomeini actually spent much of his time in exile in Najaf.

So, as my colleague says, there are very strong links between the population in southern Iraq and Iran. And we must be a little bit careful about seeing every contact as being suspicious.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, and we'll have to leave it there. Tom Parker, Babak Rahimi, thank you both.

BABAK RAHIMI: Thank you.

TOM PARKER: Thank you.