March 28, 2008

Basra clashes may be the acid test of al-Maliki’s government

-- An edited version of this appeared on

The clashes in the southern oil and port city of Basra pose the first real test of the viability of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government. The situation in Basra has spiraled out of control in the past few months following the withdrawal of British troops and the turnover of the city to Iraqi security forces. The local Iraqi security forces, overwhelmingly Shia, have proven incapable of controlling the competition among rival Shia groups for control of the lucrative oil and port industries.

Security in Basra is a critical issue for the new country and its struggling economy – almost 80 percent of Iraqi’s oilfields are located in the Basra area and exported via the port. The port on Iraqi’s miniscule coastline is the country’s major import facility and serves as an economic lifeline. Faced with the abysmal security situation, al-Maliki ordered the Iraqi army last week into the city to quell the violence.

This deployment presents a unique challenge for the army and for the al-Maliki government. Since both organizations are predominantly Shia, there has always been a question as to how the government would handle these types of Shia issues. There is a perception among Sunnis and Kurds that al-Maliki has turned a blind eye to past Shia indiscretions, particularly those of radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his jaysh al-mahdi (Mahdi Army) militia. The fact that al-Sadr’s militia is still the primary force in Sadr City and wields great influence in the Shia southern part of the country is testament to the failure of the al-Maliki government to control the Shia cleric.

Al-Maliki’s order for the army to intervene in Basra has set up a power struggle between the government and al-Sadr. Which one emerges as the victor has huge ramifications for the future of the ethnically and religiously diverse country. Al-Sadr envisions himself as the future leader of Iraq and does not want to suffer a political defeat at the hands of al-Maliki’s government. He has mobilized his followers in Sadr City, the Shia stronghold in Baghdad, calling for “civil strikes” against the government. Whether by design or not, these “civil strikes” have manifested themselves as daily rocket and mortar attacks on the Green Zone, the center of the Iraqi government, the American Embassy and U.S. military headquarters. If these attacks are not sanctioned by al-Sadr, one could draw the conclusion that he is losing control of his subordinates.

The confrontation in Basra is being watched all over the country, particularly in the Sunni Arab areas. The Sunnis, keenly aware of the Shia dominance over the government and security forces, are looking to see if al-Maliki is willing to fight his Shia brethren, and what effect that inter-Shia struggle will have on the army and police.

It is absolutely essential that the government prevail in this fight, not just because of the importance of Basra, but because of the symbolism of a Shia-led Iraqi government willing to take on rogue Shia elements. Al-Maliki realizes the stakes – that is why he has gone to Basra to personally oversee the military operation.

If the al-Maliki government cannot – or will not – act decisively against fellow Shia in Basra, it will by difficult for them to solve the al-Qaeda problem in Mosul or the ethnic diversity (Kurd-Turkomen-Arab) issue in Kirkuk. This may be Nuri al-Maliki’s defining moment.