New York Times: Three hundred miles south of Baghdad, the oil-saturated city of Basra has been transformed by its own surge, now seven weeks old.
The New York Times
By STEPHEN FARRELL and AMMAR KARIM
Published: May 12, 2008
BASRA, Iraq — Three hundred miles south of Baghdad, the oil-saturated city of Basra has been transformed by its own surge, now seven weeks old.
In a rare success, forces loyal to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki have largely quieted the city, to the initial surprise and growing delight of many inhabitants who only a month ago shuddered under deadly clashes between Iraqi troops and Shiite militias.
Just as in Baghdad, Iraqi and Western officials emphasize that the gains here are “fragile,” like the newly planted roadside saplings that fail to conceal mounds of garbage and pools of foul-smelling water in the historic port city’s slums.
Among the many uncertainties are whether the government, criticized for incompetence at the start of the operation, can maintain the high level of troops here. But in interviews across Basra, residents overwhelmingly reported a substantial improvement in their everyday lives.
“The circle of fear is broken,” said Shaker, owner of a floating restaurant on Basra’s famed Corniche promenade, who, although optimistic, was still afraid to give his full name, as were many of those interviewed.
Hopes for a similar outcome in Baghdad’s Sadr City district were undercut when an Iraqi armored unit was struck by three roadside bombs on Sunday, one day after a cease-fire there was negotiated.
The principal factor for improvement that people in Basra cite is the deployment of 33,000 members of the Iraqi security forces after the March 24 start of operations, which allowed the government to blanket the city with checkpoints on every major intersection and highway.
Borrowing tactics from the troop increase in Baghdad, the Iraqi forces raided militia strongholds and arrested hundreds of suspects. They also seized weapons including mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and sophisticated roadside bombs that officials say were used by Iranian-backed groups responsible for much of the violence.
Government forces have now taken over Islamic militants’ headquarters and halted the death squads and “vice ‘enforcers’ ” who attacked women, Christians, musicians, alcohol sellers and anyone suspected of collaborating with Westerners.
Shaker’s floating restaurant stands as one emblem of the change since then.
Just two months ago, he said, masked men in military uniforms walked into the packed dining room and abducted a businessman at gunpoint. The man was never seen again, and the restaurant closed.
Now, however, customers who fled that evening are pressing the 34-year-old owner to stay open later at night, so they can enjoy their unaccustomed freedom from the gangs, which once banned the loud Arabic pop music now blaring from Shaker’s loudspeakers.
“Now it is very different,” he said. “After we heard that the lawless people have been arrested or killed, we have a kind of courage.”
Even alcohol, once banned by the extremists, is discreetly on sale again in some areas.
Nevertheless, few Basra residents trust that the change is permanent or that the death squads have been vanquished.
Asked how long it would take for Basra to slip back into lawlessness if the army departed, Afrah, a 20-year-old theater student at Basra’s College of Fine Arts, replied, “One day.”
Capturing a mood that flits between bad recent memories, giddy relief and brittle future expectations, she added, “It is over, but it could come back any moment, because the people who are doing the intimidation on the streets, sometimes they are your neighbor and you trust them.”
Mr. Maliki’s hastily begun operation to rein in the extremists did not start with great promise.
The offensive, grandly named Charge of the Knights, was widely criticized for being poorly planned and ill-coordinated. It was derided as the Charge of the Mice by followers of the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr after more than 1,000 soldiers deserted in the face of heavy resistance from his Mahdi Army and other extremist groups. The fierce early clashes halted only after a pro-government delegation went to Iran and struck a deal with the Sadrists.
An overwhelmingly Shiite city of more than three million people, Basra sits atop huge oil reserves, which, Western officials say, provide 40 percent of Iraq’s annual oil revenue of $38 billion.
Thus, stability in a city that could be Iraq’s economic engine room is a major priority for the Shiite-led government. However, the Basra experience may not translate to other cities like Mosul or Kirkuk in the north, with a much more complicated religious and ethnic mix.
The push into Basra succeeded in part because people here were exhausted with the violence and in part because Mr. Maliki received crucial help from the American and British military.
British forces, who headed the coalition military forces in Basra beginning in 2003, handed security control to the Iraqis six months ago. But a British military spokesman said British and American forces were providing fighter jets, helicopters, surveillance and logistical support for the government operation.
In addition to the 4,000 British troops in Basra, he said, the Americans sent 800 people, including surveillance experts and around 200 transition team “advisers” embedded with Iraqi troops.
An American military spokesman in Baghdad confirmed that one American had been killed and eight wounded in the Basra operation but said the United States had not had “conventional ground forces in direct support of combat operations.”
Iraqi commanders acknowledge that the American and British support helped them wrest control of Mahdi Army strongholds like Hayyaniyah — a slum that is Basra’s equivalent of Sadr City — and other poor districts that are fertile recruiting grounds for militias.
But a majority of the military presence on the streets is Iraqi.
From the moment motorists drive through the huge arch at the city’s northern entrance, they are confronted with a ragtag but daunting collection of armored police vehicles, Iraqi Army Humvees, cold war-era tanks, pickup trucks with turret-mounted machine guns and bullet-riddled personnel carriers.
Canal bridges are guarded by head-high steel pyramids, from which soldiers observe bustling markets through a bulletproof window.
Maj. Tom Holloway, a British military spokesman, conceded that the Iraqis would have “struggled” without the warplanes available to coalition forces. But he said: “I don’t think it’s a crutch. I think they would have tackled it in their own way and possibly, probably, achieved the same result.”
And the result, whoever is ultimately responsible, is in many ways remarkable.
At the College of Fine Arts, female students said they felt more, but not entirely, free to wear the clothes they liked.
“I used to be challenged for what I wear,” said Athari, a 19-year-old student wearing heavy makeup and a bright orange headscarf pushed high back on her head in the liberal fashion disapproved of by Islamic radicals. “Makeup was forbidden; short skirts were forbidden. I will not mention their name, but they were extremists. They are still here, but quieter now.”
Qais, a music student, spoke of his relief at no longer having to hide his violin in a sack of rice in his trunk.
Most of the students were Shiite, but one youth named Alaa said that he was a Sunni and that 95 percent of his relatives had fled Basra after sectarian killings, including that of his uncle. “I want to thank Mr. Nuri al-Maliki, because he cleaned Basra of murderers, hijackers and thieves,” Alaa said.
It was not an uncommon sentiment. In his city center office, Yahya, a wealthy businessman said he had just begun going onto the streets without his customary 10 bodyguards. Insisting that he was not a political supporter of the prime minister, he said he was nevertheless so grateful for the security improvements that he and colleagues had downloaded Mr. Maliki’s face onto their mobile telephones as screensavers.
But as with the American-led surge in Baghdad, there are abiding uncertainties.
These center on how long such a heavy military presence can be sustained on urban streets, and what happens when it departs.
Gen. Mohan al-Freiji, the Iraqi commander in Basra, said the city was “75 percent” under control. He said the principal threat stemmed from rogue elements of the Mahdi Army and factions like the Iraqi Hezbollah (Party of God), Thairallah (Revenge of God) and Fadhila (Virtue).
Emphasizing the urgent need to address decades of poverty and neglect, he said the government had to provide jobs and investment to convert short-term military gains into long-term political and economic ones.
“This is a city which sits on top of oil, but its young people are unemployed,” he said.
Sadrists protest that the Basra operation is a cynical exercise to weaken Mr. Maliki’s Shiite rivals ahead of provincial elections in the fall.
At Friday prayers in Kufa last week, the Sadrist preacher, Sheik Abdul Hadi al-Muhamadawi, said, “There is a large-scale conspiracy to remove the Sadr movement from the government’s way by all means, because it refuses the presence of the occupier in Iraq.”
Such words underscore the widespread belief here that the Mahdi army has its own reasons for lying low and is by no means eliminated.
During one Iraqi Army patrol in Hayyaniyah at dusk, the soldiers, elsewhere relaxed, became jittery. Belying the local commander’s insistence that the Sadrist stronghold was “90 percent or more secure,” some pulled up face masks that they had not worn in other districts. They also fired bullets into the air at the slightest delay in traffic, an aggression unlikely to endear them in an area that, although calm, was noticeably less welcoming.
Haider, a policeman at a checkpoint outside the Sadrists’ former headquarters, said his family had been threatened, even at his home in the capital.
“I have spent 60 days in Basra and haven’t been home to Baghdad,” he said. “I will be killed if I go now. My family have received dozens of fliers with threats from the Mahdi Army.”
Nevertheless he, like many others, said the evacuation of the factions from their once-untouchable headquarters had brought about a psychological shift. Outside the Sadr office, Iraqi soldiers now sit atop the roof, their tripod-mounted machine guns overlooking the tin-roofed Sadrist prayer hall, which lies half-demolished.
“The Mahdi Army used to use this office like the Baathists when they were The Party,” Haider said. “They were ruling like the government of a state. They stopped police doing their duty, from implementing the law.”
Noting that the Baath Party of Saddam Hussein, once much stronger than the Mahdi Army, had been routed, he said, “The Mahdi Army will meet the same fate exactly, and worse.”
Yet traces of the old order remain. One wall in central Basra still bore the unsigned scrawl: “We warn girls not to put on makeup and to wear scarves. Anyone who does not follow these orders will be killed.”
Stephen Farrell and Ammar Karim reported from Basra. Iraqi employees of The New York Times contributed reporting from Basra and Kufa.