"If the Prophet Muhammad would come to Basra today he would be killed because he doesn't have a militia. There is no state of law, the only law is the militia law."
Those are the words of one university law professor in Basra, where The Guardian reports competing militia factions have sewn up the city amongst themselves in a pretense at almost-calm. Another Basran, a former politician, told the Guradian's reporters that:
When these religious parties say Basra is calm, that's because they control the city, and they are looting it," he said. "It's calm not because it's under the control of the police, but because all the militias have interests and they want to maintain the status quo. The moment their interests are under threat the whole city can burn."The Guardian also interviewed one of the thuggish militia commanders, who was in the process of telling one Sunni to fork over about $500,000 or be killed for the actions of his brother 15 years ago and was preoccupied by his feud with the Fadhila militia that has controlled the governorship and the oil terminals for most of the past two years.
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 other."
Sayed Youssif and a group of other militias all with strong ties to Iran were trying to displace Fadhila. "I have told all city council members: you have to make a choice, you either vote against the governor or you will die," he told one of his aides. The next day, two bombs exploded outside the homes of city councillors from the Fadhila party.With a a senior Iraqi general in the interior ministry.
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.and a senior Iraqi intelligence officer who says the militias could take over Basra from the British and the Iraqi central government in 30 minutes if they chose to.
"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 Brigade."
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.
As a young man with a pistol tucked into the back of his trousers brought us cans of Fanta, Samer described the economic forces behind the growth of the militias. "The militias and the tribes are cartels, they control the main ports the main oil terminal, and they have their own ports and everyone smuggles oil. When the balance of power is disrupted, they clash in the streets," he said.Moreover, the paper gets to the heart of the Iranian influence in Basra - an insiduous takeover that has as much to do with individual factions making money as any grand strategy.
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.Which is worrying enough in itself.
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 for Iran."
...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."
...But, like many he was philosophical about Iranian interference. "Unlike the US and the UK, Iran invested better. They knew where to pump their money, into militias and political parties. If a war happens they can take over Basra without even sending their soldiers. They are fighting a war of attrition with the US and UK, bleeding them slowly. We arrest Iranian spies and intelligence networks but they are not spying on the Kalashnikovs of the Iraqi army - they are here to gather intelligence on the coalition forces."
But others cite evidence of Iranian influence being used to pursue less strategic aims. A businessman in Basra, who regularly imports soft drinks from Iran, told me he once had a dispute with his suppler in Iran over price. When he refused to pay, gunmen from a pro-Iranian militia stormed his shop and kidnapped him. He was only released after paying all of what he owed to the Iranian dealer.
I've always thought that there was a large amount of weapons smuggling from iran and that iranian influence in Iraq was widespread - but that it never quite reached the levels of deliberate and inimical intent from on high propounded by the Bush administration in their search for someone else to blame (especially where EFPs were concerned). This accords well that - it's a lawless land and everyone is taking advantage of it. As the guy says, if they could get weapons from the Saudis they would.
There's a lot more and all well worth a read. After reading it, it hit me that this is Basra, supposedly nothing like as thorny a problem as Baghdad or Anbar or Diyala. The surge doesn't have a hope of success.
Update Juan Cole is even more sceptical than I am about a massively organized Iranian conspiracy.
I don't think the Fadhila Party, or most of the Sadrists, or most of the tribal militias, much care for Iran. A lot of Basrawis don't have good memories of the Iran-Iraq War. Some more extreme Sadrists even burned the Iranian consulate at Basra. The most important ally of Iran is the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, to which he devotes little space.