CHAOS REIGNS AS BRITISH EXIT SOUTHERN IRAQ
By Richard Walker
The mutilated bodies of dozens of women dumped in the Basra area of southern Iraq confirms that the British withdrawal will be followed by a rise in the brutal enforcement of Islamic rule.
The women were murdered for refusing to adhere to strict Islamic dress codes. The grisly nature of the killings was a warning to other women of what to expect if they adopted a western style of dress. The murders show that Iraq, which President Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair once declared would be democratic and tolerant, is more likely to follow the strictly religious Iranian model if Shiite militias in Basra prevail.
The British withdrawal from Basra, which is close to the Iranian border, began on Dec. 16 and was marked by a show of strength by Iraq’s fledgling military. As a colorful spectacle, it masked a different reality: the Iraqi military is incapable of imposing order in Basra and its four provinces. Beginning in 2003, when Blair sent 45,000 troops to Iraq as part of Operation Telic, Basra has been ungovernable.
The moment British troops put their boots on the sands of Iraq it was clear
the majority Shiites in the area were opposed to the occupation. A recent survey showed that only 2% of residents approved the British presence. If there is such a thing as not losing a war while not winning it, the British have that distinction.
In February, before leaving office, Blair promised a phased withdrawal to avoid offending the White House. Now there are 2,500 British personnel in the Basra region and they will remain stationed in barracks until the middle of 2008. The fact is British troops rarely left their barracks in the past year and it was clear Blair’s Iraq policy was a failure.
The three groups battling for Basra (which is now mostly Shiite, the Sunnis having being forced to flee under the eyes of the British) are the Mahdi army of the fiery cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the Fadhilamilitia that has close links to the Iraqi government and the Badr Brigade, a group run by the ISCI-Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. The ISCI has the backing of the U.S. and Britain because its leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, often regarded as pro-Iranian, established a dialogue with the U.S. military, beginning last year.
From a U.S. and British perspective, support for one militia is driven by a strategy of divide and conquer in order to marginalize al-Sadr’s Mahdi army and the Fadhila. So far, the Mahdi army has maintained a truce with the ISCI because it has U.S. support but all that could change as the battle for Basra and its provinces intensifies. In that event, the Mahdi army with its deep roots in the slums of Baghdad and Basra could win the day, creating an even bigger headache for U.S. forces and the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki.
Al-Sadr has shown that, at any moment, he can bring tens of thousands of supporters onto the streets of most Iraqi cities. He demonstrated this on Nov. 15 when he held a march to honor his late father, the revered Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr.
The White House and the Israeli leadership believe al-Sadr is Iran’s man in Iraq. The Israelis have tried to persuade Washington that Iran plans to help al-Sadr transform his militia into another Hezbollah, the Iranian supported Lebanese group that gave Israel a bloody nose when it invaded Lebanon in 2006.
Other observers say al-Sadr is not a leader like Hezbollah’s Sheik Nasrallah, who is well educated and is regarded as a shrewd political and military tactician. The British withdrawal leaves Washington with no coalition of the willing. In 2008, Poland and Australia will withdraw their forces.
Richard Walker is the nom de plume of a former mainstream news producer who now writes for AFP so he can expose the kinds of subjects that he was forbidden to cover in the controlled press.
(Issue #53, December 31, 2007)