The other side of the coin in Iraq

Reporters at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting offer insight into local political and military conditions in Basra. Reporting appears to dovetail with Cactus’s post.

The concrete walls that surround the Fadhila party’s compound in Sharish, north of Basra city centre, resemble the barricades around the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad. Last spring, fierce clashes erupted between Fadhila and the Mahdi Army, a paramilitary group loyal to radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Several people were killed on both sides and offices and buildings belonging to the two parties were destroyed. Mediators from tribes and other political parties managed to end the fighting but as Abu Ali al-Baaj, a mid-level Mahdi Army commander, put it, “The tensions were not buried for good.”

The reason for the battle was simple – as the governing party in Basra, Fadhila had replaced the head of the local electricity department, who happened to be a Sadr supporter. Behind the façade of democratic institutions such as councils and the police force, Iraq’s second-largest city with about 2.6 million inhabitants, has fallen into the grip of competing militias who are as suspicious of one another as rival mafia families. When the two militias began fighting over the post of electricity chief, the police force divided into factions which turned their weapons on one another. Police cars were used to transport militia members. The Fadhila party runs the provincial council of Basra and controls most of the government institutions there. It was founded after Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled in April 2003, and holds 15 seats in the Iraqi parliament.

With leading Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed al-Yaqubi as its spiritual leader, the party also features Basra’s governor Mohammed al-Waili among its leading members. Basra had so little to lose and so much to gain from the demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime that, initially at least, it had all of the makings of a post-liberation success story. The city had been neglected for at least a decade as punishment for its largely Shia population’s support for the 1991 rebellion against Ba’ath party rule.

Whichever party wins, residents fear they will be the losers. Many say all they want is decent public services and accountable officials.”The religious parties and coalitions plant fear and terror among people to make sure they keep their mouths shut,” said Ahmed al-Hassawi, a traffic policeman. “This creates a terrorised community that can’t hold officials accountable even when they make mistakes. “I don’t care about the name or approach of the party that runs the province – my concern is what they will provide for my children and me.”However, Basra could be set for another bout of turbulence well ahead of any election. After Maliki dismissed Governor Waili, the Fadhila party threatened to mount protests on July 30. The protests were called off at the last minute, apparently after the party received assurances that Waili’s replacement would again be drawn from its ranks rather than from some rival group.