In Basra, Elections, Oil Drive Conflict
In Basra, Elections, Oil Drive Conflict
By Maya Schenwar and Christopher Kuttruff
t r u t h o u t | Report
Fighting in Iraq's southern city, Basra, initiated by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Iraqi Army, has left at least 45 dead and 225 wounded over the past two days. Clashes have also spread to Sadr City in Baghdad, where 20 were killed and at least 115 injured, as well as in the cities of Kut and Hilla, near the Iranian border.
This instability threatens the cease-fire declared by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in August, which has contributed to the much-touted decline in violence across Iraq.
Today Maliki issued an ultimatum to Sadr's followers: surrender to government control within 72 hours or face even sharper consequences.
As the conflicts swell in Basra and Baghdad, the Maliki government, supported by the Bush administration, claims it is subduing terrorism and cracking down on militia violence. However, attacks on the Sadr forces may be primarily motivated by electoral politics and oil control, according to policy experts following Iraq's civil conflict closely.
The eruption of violence comes on the heels of the Iraqi presidential council's approval of the "provincial law," which clears the way for elections within Iraq's 18 provinces. Maliki's decision to order troops to Basra may well have been prompted by the law's passage Monday, as it sets the ball rolling for a decision on whether Iraq will be partitioned or remain a unified state, according to Raed Jarrar, Iraq consultant to the American Friends Service Committee.
"It's a reaction to the provincial law," Jarrar told Truthout. "Separatist Shiites want to make sure nationalist Shiites won't win the election - by killing them. In other places, the candidates use TV advertisements. But this is an election, Iraqi-style."
The separatists - allied with the Maliki government and the Bush administration - support the partitioning of Iraq, the privatization of oil and a continued US presence in the country. The nationalists - including the followers of Moqtada al-Sadr and much of the Iraqi Parliament - support a unified, sovereign Iraq. Jarrar compares the split to the two sides of the US Civil War - with the notable exception that the US was not under the influence of an occupying force.
Under the new law, after provisional governments are elected, those representatives will vote in October on whether to join one of three "regions" (partitioning the country) or remain a separate province, part of one united country.
Maliki has initiated fighting, in part, to marginalize the Sadr movement as much as possible before elections begin, according to Dahr Jamail, author of "Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq." Public opinion in Iraq reflects that view, according to Ali al-Fahdily, a correspondent from Baghdad and Fallujah. Fahdily told Truthout that, despite the American press's portrayal of the conflict as a push against terrorists and militants, many Iraqis see it as a partisan battle to "establish a firm base before the elections."
As the voting draws closer, Jamail says, the conflict will continue to build, with the cease-fire disintegrating.
"This is just the beginning - we should expect this to be the kick-off of hostilities," Jamail told Truthout. "There's been a long series of Maliki provocations of the Sadr movement. It's been an ongoing battle for months and months, if not years. Now the jig is up."
A Petroleum Battle
Underlying the confrontation in Basra is a heightening struggle for control over the country's oil resources, according to Juan Cole, president of the Global Americana Institute.
It makes sense that Maliki would initially send troops to Basra: it's the oil hub of Iraq, and thus the key to the Iraqi economy. About 20 percent of the entire Middle East's oil reserves lie in Basra Province.
What's more, Basra is a port city, with 90 percent of Iraq's petroleum leaving from its docks. Militias in Basra have long been fighting for oil smuggling rights, which translate into profits of billions of dollars.
"For Maliki, losing Basra would be like allowing New York to be taken over by the five mafia families," Cole told Truthout. "The fighting is all about petroleum security for the government."
As the fighting began Tuesday in Basra, Maliki himself traveled to Basra to oversee military operations - a move prompted by the city's all-important oil status, according to Jamail, who added that Basra's oil was most likely a primary motivation for the US's immediate support of the initiative.
"The US and Maliki want personal control of Basra," Jamail said, "and oil is probably the driving factor."
One of the Maliki administration's most remarkable patterns is its consistent use of violence to quell civil disobedience and nonviolent protest, according to Jarrar, a trend exemplified in the past few days' conflict.
Despite rising tensions, Sadr maintains that his cease-fire holds, and has attempted to use acts of civil disobedience to elicit support for his demands on US and Iraqi troops: to stop their raids against Sadrists; release Sadrist detainees, and apologize to the families and tribal sheiks of those who've been detained, injured or killed.
On Monday, Sadr called for a sweeping sit-in protest across western Baghdad. Sadrists shut down shops in the area and used loudspeakers to urge residents into the streets to participate, according to McClatchy reports. If his demands are not met, Sadr said in a statement on Tuesday, he will call for "general civil disobedience in Baghdad and the Iraqi provinces."
However, if current trends continue, those areas may be so torn by violence that peaceful action would prove hopeless.
Moreover, the Maliki government warned on Monday that any threats or intimidation used to enforce the sit-in would be considered violations of anti-terrorism laws, and would be "dealt with."
That position could be used to classify virtually any act of civil disobedience as terrorism, according to Jarrar.
"They can accuse anyone who is participating or organizing [a protest] of 'threatening' others,'" he said. "When Iraqis choose nonviolent civil disobedience, the Iraqi government responds by calling it terrorism. The US and Iraqi government policies are removing nonviolence as an option and pushing Iraqis to choose armed resistance."
The Sadr movement has attempted nonviolent resistance at various points throughout the occupation, but has consistently been met by force, according to Jamail.
"It's another classic case of the occupation stoking the fires of violence," he said. "[The Sadrists] use civil disobedience against US troops, and they get run over by tanks. Ninety-nine out of 100 times, civil disobedience is dealt with violently."
The US Role
The Bush administration maintains that it is assuming merely an advisory role in the conflict, allowing Iraqi police and Army forces to handle the fighting.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino called the offensive a "bold decision" to root out "terrorists and insurgents that have infested the area."
"This is what we have been wanting to see the Iraqis do," she said. "[It] is one of the first times that they've had such an entrenched battle and we'll be there to support them if they need it."
Despite Perino's characterization of the fighting as an "Iraqi-led and Iraqi-initiated operation," the US is providing monetary and political support every step of the way, according to Jamail.
"Sadr has the numbers," Jamail said, noting that the cleric controls huge swathes of Baghdad and much of southern Iraq. "If Maliki didn't have the US behind him, he wouldn't be able to pick this fight."
Although the ground troops in the current conflict are overwhelmingly Iraqi, the US is providing air support. Plus, US troops have been heavily involved in enforcing the curfews hastily imposed on many southern towns yesterday.
Much of the Bush administration's rationale for supporting the current initiative stems from an alleged link between members of the Sadr movement and Iran, according to Perino's statements on Tuesday. However, Cole says, the nationalistic Sadrists have few links with their eastern neighbor, while the Islamic Supreme Council, one of Maliki and Bush's foremost allies, maintains close ties with Iran's ayatollahs.
The latest conflict underscores the fact that the Maliki administration is a "minority government," supported by the US but opposed by popular will, according to Cole.
"If this were Britain, Maliki
would [be removed through] a 'vote of no confidence' in the
parliament," he said.
Thus, any reports of efforts by Maliki's "Iraqi Army" to root out "militiamen" and "terrorists" must be taken with several grains of salt. Who comprises this "army," and which Iraqis do they represent?
"No Iraqi Army"
The "Iraqi Army" that initiated fighting in Basra on Tuesday is primarily composed of three former militias: those of two Shiite parties and one Kurdish party, according to Raed Jarrar. The army, he says, has no coherent identity except its opposition to the nationalists and its support by the US.
"When these three militias came together, they just took off their militia outfits and put on their army outfits," Jarrar said. "There is no 'Iraqi Army' with a national identity. Basically, the US is supporting one militia over another militia."
Few army members have shed their former allegiances, according to Jamail, and nine out of ten are members of either a militia or a criminal gang. So, while the army has the support of the United States and Iraq's "minority government," it is not representative of - or unitedly loyal to - the Iraqi people.
Fueled by this divide between the US-Maliki government and the citizens, the current fighting in Basra, Baghdad and beyond is not an isolated instance, but a portent, according to Jamail.
"The Sadr movement has the power - on the streets, in reality," he said. "If the government doesn't meet at least some of Sadr's demands, this is going to explode."
Christopher Kuttruff is a frequent contributor to Truthout.org.
Maya Schenwar is an assistant editor and reporter for Truthout.