Iraq’s oil-rich, Shiite-dominated southern Basra province is fast turning its face away from Baghdad. In a belated effort to stem the trend, the entire security commission of the unruly town of Basra was replaced July 2 after its members were found to be tainted by collaboration with the dominant local Shiite militias.
The new commanders of the commission, whose function is to direct security efforts by the Iraqi army and police, are the provincial police chief Maj. Gen. Abdul-Jalil Khalaf and head of the army’s 10th Division Maj. Gen Habib Taleb Abbas.
The change catches the entire region in a state of flux.
The British forces who ruled southern Iraq from the earliest days of the Iraq War are preparing to pull out amid rising violence among the squabbling local Shiite militias who are plaguing Iraqi police and security officers and British troops with mortar and rocket attacks.
A pessimistic view of the situation emerges from a new Jordanian confidential report, seen by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, which was submitted last week to the White House. The report landed with a thud on the desks of President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the head of the National Security Council, Stephen Hadley.
The Jordanian compilers of the confidential document conclude that the US command and the 5,5000 British troops in the Basra region, not to speak of Nouri al-Maliki‘s government in Baghdad, have lost control of the vital region, its oil fields, the pipeline network and the terminals at Basra oil port.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources report that whenever in the last two years the White House sought a balanced intelligence evaluation of the true situation in Iraq, free of bias and the military-weighted calculations of American and Iraqi commanders, Jordanian intelligence was consulted. They send out agents for on-the-spot observations, bring the raw material back to Amman where it is expertly analyzed and then forwarded to Washington.
The three-party bid for Saudi acceptance of an independent Basra
The main conclusion reached by the latest report, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report, is that control of the Basra region has been staked out by three party militias, the radical Mehdi Army factions which still defer to its founder, the controversial cleric Moqtada Sadr, the Shiite SCIRI Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq party, whose leadership is in transition from Abdul Aziz al Hakim, who is in Tehran undergoing chemotherapy for cancer of the throat, to his son Amar al-Hakim, and the Al-Fadhila Party, headed by Sheikh Mohammed Al-Yaqoubi.
These three groups are in advanced negotiations for establishing a Basra emirate as Iraq’s second independent Shiite state. Already, they have accumulated more provincial autonomy than the Kurds in northern Iraq. In full flight, the factions have sent envoys to Riyadh to test the ground for Saudi recognition of Basra province as a self-ruling Iraqi Shiite state providing a buffer between the oil-rich Gulf and Iran.
According to Jordanian intelligence reports, the Saudi princes listened to the proposition without comment. The three Shiite leaders interpreted this as encouraging enough to keep sending their envoys back to further enlarge on the plan. They envisage Riyadh’s acceptance of a rich, strong and friendly Shiite state on its border.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources disclose some of the report’s other highlights:
1. The US government has no option but to accept that Basra has taken itself and the oil resources of the South out of the republic and no longer feel bound by ties of allegiance to the central government in Baghdad.
2. Basra is currently governed by the following power centers:
A. The Al-Fadhila Party controls the administration of the region’s oil installations and the protection of oil fields. The large US naval force guarding Basra and the Shatt al Arab outlet to the Persian Gulf from terrorist attack finds itself in the position of securing the takeover of southern Iraq’s oil resources by Al Fadhila and the two other Shiite militias.
For Al Fadhila, this takeover is the natural corollary of its seizure earlier this year of the Iraqi oil ministry in Baghdad lock, stock and barrel.
Iraq’s Baghdad, Mosul and Basra power centers spin farther apart
Tuesday, July 3, the government headed by Nouri al-Maliki, after many delays and heavy American arm-twisting, finally approved the draft of a new oil law, sending it on its tortuous way to parliament. However, even if the measure wins a majority, its execution will depend on the Al-Fahdila sayso.
B. SCIRI’s armed outfit has for its part taken over the administration of customs, levies, taxes and transit tolls for the passage of oil from the moment it leaves the oil fields until its departure from Iraqi soil.
C. The Sadrists are the bosses of the administration departments and personnel at Southern Iraq’s port facilities and oil terminals.
According to witnesses, southern Iraq up to the shores of the Shatt al-Arab has fallen under the sway of the Shiite tribal militias.
The al Fadhila clan’s stake is most substantial. Its members started out as gunmen guarding another smuggling clan’s control of Basra port. Eventually they took over the clan’s flourishing business with its storage facilities for cargoes later “exported” under cover of dark. At one point, the clan was paying hundreds of thousands of dollars per week for gunmen to guard their facilities. Even that exorbitant fee left the smugglers a very tidy profit.
4. The Jordanian report notes that Basra on the western shore of the Shatt al-Arb and Iraq’s only outlet to the sea, has always been prey to secessionist tendencies. In the 19th and up to the early 20th century, Basraites sought to maintain their tribal independence by maneuvering between the Persian and Ottoman empires. Its rulers enjoyed the rank of emir whose influence was oriented less on Iraq and more on the western coast of the Persian Gulf.
The current centrifugal trend in Iraq is spinning its three power centers, Baghdad, Mosul and Basra further apart and strengthening Basra’s inborn will to separate from the whole.