TOPICS > Politics

Iraqi PM Calls on Militias to Cease Fighting in Basra

March 26, 2008 at 6:05 PM EDT
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Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued an ultimatum Wednesday for Shiite militias to lay down their arms against Iraqi security forces in Basra on the second day of deadly fighting among rival factions vying for power in the oil-rich city. Experts examine what the unrest may mean for U.S. military efforts.

MARGARET WARNER: And to help us understand why this fighting has broken out among Shias and where it may lead, we turn to Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan and author of “Sacred Space and Holy War,” a book about Iraqi Shiites.

And Trudy Rubin, a foreign affairs columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, she last visited Iraq in December, her ninth trip there since 2003.

Welcome to you both.

Professor Cole, most Americans have been under the impression that things have really calmed down in Iraq, security-wise. Why this outbreak now among Shiite factions?

JUAN COLE, University of Michigan: Well, with regard to Basra, the impression of calm was mistaken. Basra is kind of a no-man’s land. There are gangs fighting one another. It’s kind of Al Capone’s Chicago, and it hasn’t been calm at all.

But, of course, there are very few American troops down there, and it is dangerous to report from there, so we just haven’t heard so much about it.

MARGARET WARNER: But go ahead, what explains now — why would the government of Prime Minister Maliki be going into Basra now, and it looks like trying to establish some sort of control there?

JUAN COLE: Well, there are several party militias that are fighting turf wars with one another, in addition to tribal mafias, that are seeking to control rights to gasoline and kerosene smuggling worth billions a year. And they’re siphoning it off from the central government. They’re basically stealing it from Mr. al-Maliki, and he wants them to stop.

MARGARET WARNER: Trudy Rubin, is that how you see it, that this is about economic control as much as anything else?

TRUDY RUBIN, The Philadelphia Inquirer: I think it definitely is about economic control, because this oil is worth probably billions, and Basra has been totally out of control. It’s the port where most oil is exported.

In addition, it’s about political control. The government in the center has been accused of being useless and weak. And I think that Prime Minister Maliki is trying to show that he’s capable of exerting some control with Iraqi military forces over these warring militias that have made Basra Hell.

And the British troops down there have basically withdrawn last year to base, so there’s no political control over Basra.

But this is a story that can reverberate from Basra back up to Baghdad and perhaps overcome the calm, the relative calm in Baghdad, because it involves Shiite militias, especially the force of Muqtada al-Sadr, who now are fighting the government in Basra and could start fighting, have started fighting already in Baghdad, and could abandon a six-month cease-fire that has been crucial to the calm that followed the surge.

Continued stability in Sadr's hands

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Cole, what about Sadr's role here? I mean, if Basra is really a hot bed of all these rival factions, why is this, in particular, this battle seen as between the Iraqi army and Sadr's Mahdi Army?

JUAN COLE: Sadr's Mahdi Army is in opposition now to the al-Maliki government. It's quite ironic, because Sadr in many ways brought al-Maliki to power initially through his deputies in parliament who sided with al-Maliki, but they broke with one another last summer.

And Muqtada al-Sadr's faction has pulled out of the al-Maliki government. It is angry at al-Maliki because he declines to call for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. It's one of the Mahdi Army's main demands. And they felt that they just weren't having an influence on policy commensurate with their place in the government.

So the Mahdi Army in Basra controls a number of city districts, mainly poor slums, and they have been interfering with federal government revenues and security control. And al-Maliki is allied, de facto, with rival party militias that don't like Muqtada al-Sadr, which have demonstrated against the situation in Basra.

So it's not really so much the Iraqi central government versus a rogue militia as rival militias in which al-Maliki, a weak prime minister, is picking sides.

MARGARET WARNER: And then, Trudy, is the conflict now that's going on in Baghdad in fact just a parallel front in the same struggle right now? In other words, these rocket and mortar attacks that are coming, presumably -- or at least it's believed -- from Sadr City into the Green Zone, including killing Americans, among others?

TRUDY RUBIN: What makes this killing in Basra so dangerous, besides the fact that it could drive oil prices up if it continues, is that it does reverberate back in Baghdad.

The militia of Muqtada al-Sadr had been a prime force in keeping sectarian conflict going. They had been doing revenge killing of Sunnis.

Then, seven months ago, they declared a cease-fire, in part because Muqtada al-Sadr wanted to get more control over his forces, many of whom were thugs that were out of control, in killing Sunnis and also shaking down Shiites.

So this cease-fire has lasted, and it was renewed in February, and that's been a crucial factor in keeping sectarian killing down and in the relative drop in fatalities of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians.

The worry now is that, if Maliki is taking on Muqtada's forces in Basra, those in his entourage who feel that the cease-fire has been taken advantage of, will push him to abandon that cease-fire.

And then you could have Muqtada's men, who are a very powerful force in Iraq, fighting against the central government, fighting against U.S. forces, and perhaps even starting to kill Sunnis again.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Cole, what's your reading of whether Muqtada al-Sadr, in fact, is going to lift this cease-fire? And what would that do, then, to U.S. plans now underway for a drawdown, at least in the additional forces that have been sent to Baghdad as part of the so-called surge?

JUAN COLE: I think this outbreak of fighting, the revelation of how riven with fractional violence the Shiite south is, how fragile the situation is in the key port of Basra, through which most of Iraq's petroleum and other exports flow, all of this makes an argument that the U.S. is very unlikely to draw down its troops substantially this year or perhaps at all.

And, of course, we know General Petraeus has been urging a pause in the withdrawal. We could well see troop levels at the current level, 150,000 or so, I think through the end of this year, if the situation remains this fragile.

And, of course, it is possible that things could go downhill from here. I don't envisage another outbreak of big Shiite-Sunni fighting in Baghdad, because I think the Shiites have won that fight.

Baghdad has been turned into a majority Shiite city, probably 75 percent, 80 percent Shiite. The Sunnis have been ethnically cleansed in large numbers. Many of them are refugees in Damascus.

One of the reasons for which the Mahdi Army in Baghdad was willing to accept a truce was that it got what it wanted without fighting the Americans and without having to further fight the Sunni militias because it could ethnically cleanse at night after the Sunnis had been disarmed by Americans.

But there is a potential for violence with other Shiite factions and rivals supporting al-Maliki. There's a potential for violence with the U.S. itself.

After British pullout, power vacuum

MARGARET WARNER: And, Trudy Rubin, of course, this lawless state in Basra follows the drawdown, almost complete withdrawal of the British forces there. To what degree -- I mean, you've been there -- do you think that what's happening now is a preview of what, in fact, could happen whenever the U.S. forces really draw down, this kind of violent settling of political disputes?

TRUDY RUBIN: Yes, unfortunately, I think it is a potential preview. What happened in Basra basically was that the British pulled back, but no institutions were set up in the city to really take control. And the writ of Baghdad didn't extend.

So even before the British pulled back, and especially when they did pull back to a base near the airport in December, the whole city was left to criminal gangs and these Shiite militias to fight it out. There's basically no government. One party controls the police that police the oil production, and they just siphon off oil at will.

And what one worries about is, in Baghdad, if the U.S. pulls back, you could -- and there are no strong institutions at the center, especially if Prime Minister Maliki loses this bout, which would indicate that Iraqi forces are still very weak, you worry that everyone would be at it, both intra-Sunni, intra-Shiite, and perhaps some Shiite-Sunni again, because, after all, those Sunni militias who have now laid down their arms still exist in Baghdad. They're allied with the Americans now.

But if the Americans were gone, you could see that kind of Shiite-Sunni fighting start again, I believe.

MARGARET WARNER: A grim prospect. Well, Trudy Rubin and Juan Cole, thank you both.