By Ghaith Abdul-Ahad for The Guardian:
On a recent overcast afternoon in Basra, two new police SUVs drove onto a dusty, rubbish-strewn football pitch where a group of children were playing. The game stopped and the kids looked on.
Three men in white dishdashas got out of one of the cars. One, holding a Kalashnikov, stood guard as the other two removed some metal tubes and cables from the back of a vehicle. As the two men fiddled with the wires, the man with the gun waved it at a teenager who wanted to film with his mobile phone.
Then, amid cries of “Moqtada, Moqtada” and “Allahu Akbar”, there were two thunderous explosions and a pair of Katyusha rockets streaked up into the sky. Their target would be the British base in Saddam Hussein’s former palace compound. Their landing place
could be anywhere in Basra, and was most likely to be a civilian home.
The men got back in their cars and drove away, and the children resumed their match.
“Since the British started deploying the anti-rocket magnetic fields our rockets are falling on civilians,” Abu Mujtaba, the commander of the group of Mahdi army men told me later. The “magnetic fields” are the latest rumour doing the rounds of
Basra’s militias; another is that the British are shelling civilians to damage the reputation of the Mahdi army.
“If the Prophet Muhammad would come to Basra today he would be killed because he doesn’t have a militia,” a law professor told me. “There is no state of law, the only law is the militia law.”
An attempt at hyperbole, but the comparison just doesn’t seem to work.
Like many I spoke to, he said the appearance of a functioning state was largely an illusion: “The security forces are made of militiamen. In any confrontation between political parties, the police force will splinter according to party line and fight each
One afternoon I went to meet a senior Iraqi general in the interior ministry. A dozen gunmen in military uniforms lay dozing as a junior officer led me through a maze of corridors padded with sandbags.
The general was on the phone to another officer when I entered. He was jokingly threatening the caller: “Shut up or I will send democracy to your town.”
When he finished his conversation, the general – who didn’t want his name published because he feared retribution from militias -stretched out his hand to me and said: “Welcome to Tehran.”
I asked him about British claims that the security situation was improving. His reply was withering: “The British came here as military tourists. They committed huge mistakes when they formed the security forces. They appointed militiamen as police officers and chose not confront the militias. We have reached this point where the militias are a legitimate force in the street.”
He and other security officials in Basra, including a British adviser to the local police force, described a web of different security forces with allegiances to different factions or militias.
“Most of the police force is divided between Fadhila which controls the TSU [the tactical support unit, its best-trained unit] and Moqtada which controls the regular police,” the general said.
“Fadhila also control the oil terminals, so they control the oil protection force and part of the navy. Moqtada controls the ports and customs, so they control the customs, police and its intelligence. Commandos are under the control of Badr
The relationship between militias and the security units they had infiltrated was fluid and difficult to pin down, he said. “Even the police officer who is not part of a militia will join a militia to protect himself, and once he is affiliated with a militia then as a commander you can’t change him … because then you are confronting a political party,” he added.
More than 60% of his own officers, and “almost all” policemen, were militiamen. “We need a major surgical operation, to clean the city,” he said.
The British army’s Operation Sinbad was designed to do just that. The army has claimed it was a success but the general saw it somewhat differently. “The Sinbad operation failed miserably, because it didn’t cleanse the police force,” he said. “Ahead of us we have years of fighting and murder, a militia will be toppled by another militia and those will split so day after day we are witnessing the formations of new groups. And the British withdrawal is leading to a power struggle between the different factions.”
When there was a clash between two militias, the police force split and one police unit began fighting other units. Police cars became militia cars. (One Mahdi army commander was aghast that I found this strange: “Of course I should travel in a police car, do you want the commander to travel by taxi?”)
Complicating matters further, Samer said most militiamen had multiple IDs associated with different groups. “They switch depending on who pays more.”
Like the general, he said much of the blame for the current situation lay with the British: “The British officers are very careful about their image, they are too scared to go into confrontation. They allowed the cancer to [take over the body]. Even if the militias burn the city tomorrow, [the British] won’t go into confrontation. They know they are outnumbered and they have huge losses if they do so.”
The next day I went back to see the general. He was sitting with two other officers discussing his day.”Our uncles, the British, flew me today to Ammara to attend the security handover ceremony,” he said. “Give it one month and it will collapse,” one of the officers replied.
“One month?” the general laughed . “Give it a few days.”
You can’t move far in Basra without bumping into some evidence of the Iranian influence on the city. Even inside the British consulate compound visitors are advised not to use mobile phones because, as the security official put it ,”the Iranians next door are listening to everything”.
In the Basra market Iranian produce is everywhere, from dairy products to motorcycles and electronic goods. Farsi phrase books are sold in bookshops and posters of Ayatollah Khomeini are on the walls.
But Iranian influence is also found in more sinister places. Abu Mujtaba described the level of cooperation between Iran and his units. His account echoed what several militia men in other parts of Iraq have told me.
Sitting in his house in one of Basra’s poorest neighbourhoods, he told me: “We need weapons and Iran is our only outlet. If the Saudis would give us weapons we would stop bringing weapons from Iran.”
He went on: “They [the Iranians] don’t give us weapons, they sell us weapons: an Iranian bomb costs us $100, nothing comes for free. We know Iran is not interested in the good of Iraq, and we know they are here to fight the Americans and the British on our
land, but we need them and they are using us.”
Despite this scepticism about Tehran’s motives, he said some Mahdi army units were now effectively under Iranian control. “Some of the units are following different commanders, and Iran managed to infiltrate [them], and these units work directly
Most of the Shia militias and parties that control politics in Basra today were formed and funded by Tehran, he said.
His assessment was shared by both the general and the intelligence official. “Iran has not only infiltrated the government and security forces through the militias and parties they nurtured in Iran, they managed to infiltrate Moqtada’s lot, by providing them
with weapons,” the general told me. “And some disgruntled and militias were over taken by Iran and provided with money and weapons.”
In his office, littered with weapons bearing Iranian markings, Samer showed me footage his men had shot of a weapons smuggling operation after they captured six brand new Katyushas.
“In Basra, Iran has more influence than the government in Baghdad,” he said. “It is providing the militias with everything from socks to rockets.”
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