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‘Welcome to Tehran’ – how Iran took control of Basra


The Guardian: On a recent overcast afternoon in Basra, two new police SUVs drove onto a dusty, rubbish-strewn football pitch where a group of children were playing. The game stopped and the kids looked on. The Guardian

Britain has failed to stop southern Iraq falling into grip of militias

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in Basra

On a recent overcast afternoon in Basra, two new police SUVs drove onto a dusty, rubbish-strewn football pitch where a group of children were playing. The game stopped and the kids looked on.

Three men in white dishdashas got out of one of the cars. One, holding a Kalashnikov, stood guard as the other two removed some metal tubes and cables from the back of a vehicle. As the two men fiddled with the wires, the man with the gun waved it at a teenager who wanted to film with his mobile phone.

Then, amid cries of “Moqtada, Moqtada” and “Allahu Akbar”, there were two thunderous explosions and a pair of Katyusha rockets streaked up into the sky. Their target would be the British base in Saddam Hussein’s former palace compound. Their landing place could be anywhere in Basra, and was most likely to be a civilian home.

The men got back in their cars and drove away, and the children resumed their match.

“Since the British started deploying the anti-rocket magnetic fields our rockets are falling on civilians,” Abu Mujtaba, the commander of the group of Mahdi army men told me later. The “magnetic fields” are the latest rumour doing the rounds of Basra’s militias; another is that the British are shelling civilians to damage the reputation of the Mahdi army.

The scene I had just watched was an everyday incident in an area long regarded as relatively safe and stable compared with the civil war-racked regions to the north. But as the British army’s decision not to deploy Prince Harry highlighted this week, Basra and the nominally British controlled areas around it are far from secure.

During a recent nine-day visit, politicians, security officials and businessmen explained how the streets of the city were effectively under the control of rival militias competing to control territory, the fragile post-Saddam apparatus of state and revenue sources such as oil and weapons smuggling. As in Baghdad, gunmen speed through the streets on the back of pickups and the city is divided between militias as mutually suspicious as rival mafia families.

“If the Prophet Muhammad would come to Basra today he would be killed because he doesn’t have a militia,” a law professor told me. “There is no state of law, the only law is the militia law.”

The politician

His description of life in the city was echoed by Abu Ammar, once a prominent Basra politician. A secular technocrat, he had high hopes when the British first arrived more than four years ago. The city had been hit hard by Saddam’s wars against Iran and Kuwait and he was optimistic that the occupation would bring democracy and prosperity.

But the rise of the militias has put paid to that, he said. Now he was too scared to talk in a hotel lobby and insisted we meet in my room.

“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.”

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.”

The militia commander

The people who really control Basra are men such as Sayed Youssif. He is a mid-level militia commander, but his name and that of his militia – God’s Revenge – strikes fear anywhere in Basra.

Beginning with a small group of gunmen occupying a small public building, the former religious student built up a reputation as a fearless thug, killing former Ba’athists, alcohol sellers and eventually freelancing as a hitman for anyone willing to pay the price.

I went to see him in his Basra compound. Gunmen dressed in the uniforms of ministry of interior commandos stood guard outside and a sniper watched from the roof.

In the room outside his office, tribal leaders, officials and more gunmen sat, bare footed, waiting for Sayed Youssif to call them. Some wanted him to help their relatives join the army or police. Some had problems with other militias and were seeking his protection. But most were there to pay homage to a powerful man whose help they may one day need. As the official apparatus of state slides into chaos, men such as him have become the main dispensers of justice and patronage. No one in Basra can be appointed to the army, police or any official job without a letter of support from a militia or a political party.

Sitting in front of a mural of an eagle emerging from Basra and enveloping the whole of Iraq, he retained the manners of a religious student; stretching his arms on his lap, he lowered his head to listen intently as visitors address him. But on the desk in front of him, two phones that rang constantly and a pistol with two cartridges hinted at the power he now wields.

Sayed Youssif had just made a ruling in the case of a Sunni man whose brother was accused of shooting at Shias more than 15 years ago. Relatives of the alleged victims were demanding that he pay them compensation or be killed. The man pleaded that his brother had left the country two years before and he was too poor to pay 7m dinars (£250,000) in compensation.

The Sunni man shook, pleading for mercy. “Time has changed,” said Sayed Youssif in a low but powerful voice. “Now you Sunni come here and beg like the mice. Do you remember the days when no one of us could even talk to you? You were the tyrants then, but we are not tyrants like you – I will give you a week to go to your tribe and either convince then to hand your brother or you will be judged in his place.”

At the moment, he explained, he was preoccupied with a power struggle against the Fadhila party, another Shia militia that has controlled the governorship and the oil terminals for most of the past two years.

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.

The general

One afternoon I went to meet a senior Iraqi general in the interior ministry. A dozen gunmen in military uniforms lay dozing as a junior officer led me through a maze of corridors padded with sandbags.

The general was on the phone to another officer when I entered. He was jokingly threatening the caller: “Shut up or I will send democracy to your town.”

When he finished his conversation, the general – who didn’t want his name published because he feared retribution from militias -stretched out his hand to me and said: “Welcome to Tehran.”

I asked him about British claims that the security situation was improving. His reply was withering: “The British came here as military tourists. They committed huge mistakes when they formed the security forces. They appointed militiamen as police officers and chose not confront the militias. We have reached this point where the militias are a legitimate force in the street.”

He and other security officials in Basra, including a British adviser to the local police force, described a web of different security forces with allegiances to different factions or militias.

“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.

“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.

The British army’s Operation Sinbad was designed to do just that. The army has claimed it was a success but the general saw it somewhat differently. “The Sinbad operation failed miserably, because it didn’t cleanse the police force,” he said. “Ahead of us we have years of fighting and murder, a militia will be toppled by another militia and those will split so day after day we are witnessing the formations of new groups. And the British withdrawal is leading to a power struggle between the different factions.”

The intelligence officer

In the living room of his modest Basra home, a senior military intelligence official, call him Samer, told me the militias could take control of the city in half an hour if they chose. Next to the sofa we sat on lay a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, a machine gun and couple of grenades. Samer had survived two assassination attempts.

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.

He told me how a few weeks earlier an official in the directorate of electricity loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr had been was replaced by another one loyal to the Fadhila party, triggering clashes in the streets between different police units.

When there was a clash between two militias, the police force split and one police unit began fighting other units. Police cars became militia cars. (One Mahdi army commander was aghast that I found this strange: “Of course I should travel in a police car, do you want the commander to travel by taxi?”)

Complicating matters further, Samer said most militiamen had multiple IDs associated with different groups. “They switch depending on who pays more.”

Like the general, he said much of the blame for the current situation lay with the British: “The British officers are very careful about their image, they are too scared to go into confrontation. They allowed the cancer to [take over the body”>. Even if the militias burn the city tomorrow, [the British”> won’t go into confrontation. They know they are outnumbered and they have huge losses if they do so.”

The next day I went back to see the general. He was sitting with two other officers discussing his day.”Our uncles, the British, flew me today to Ammara to attend the security handover ceremony,” he said. “Give it one month and it will collapse,” one of the officers replied.

“One month?” the general laughed . “Give it a few days.”

The Iranians

You can’t move far in Basra without bumping into some evidence of the Iranian influence on the city. Even inside the British consulate compound visitors are advised not to use mobile phones because, as the security official put it ,”the Iranians next door are listening to everything”.

In the Basra market Iranian produce is everywhere, from dairy products to motorcycles and electronic goods. Farsi phrase books are sold in bookshops and posters of Ayatollah Khomeini are on the walls.

But Iranian influence is also found in more sinister places. 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.

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.”

Most of the Shia militias and parties that control politics in Basra today were formed and funded by Tehran, he said.

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.”

In his office, littered with weapons bearing Iranian markings, Samer showed me footage his men had shot of a weapons smuggling operation after they captured six brand new Katyushas.

“In Basra, Iran has more influence than the government in Baghdad,” he said. “It is providing the militias with everything from socks to rockets.”

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.

Nasaif Jassem, a city councillor for the Fadhila party that controls the governorship and the oil industry in Basra, was critical of Iranian interference. Fadhila, widely seen as backed by the British, split from the main Shia alliance in Baghdad after accusing it of having a sectarian agenda.

“This British occupation will go but the other occupation, that of Iran, will stay for a long time,” he said. “They want to have an agent in Iraq that they can move every time they want, just like Hizbullah in Lebanon. Iran is sending a message to the west: don’t you dare come close to us because we can burn Basra and its people.”

Fear of the Iranians runs through the city. I saw it in the offices of the general as we sat in his office one late one night. His two mobile phones had just rung, each with someone asking for a wrong number. The general’s face turned pale and he said: “They have located me – the militia control all the transmission towers for the mobile network and now they have located my position.”

Were ‘they’ the Iranians or a militia, I asked. “They are all the same.” He called on his guards to send more men outside and ran to the window to check that the sandbags behind the glass were well stacked. “Do you think I or the British commander can walk freely in Basra?” he asked. “No is the answer, but the Iranian chargé d’affaires runs around freely.”

The names of Abu Ammar and Samer have been changed for their safety. Ghaith Abdul- Ahad’s second dispatch from Basra on oil smuggling will appear in Monday’s newspaper

Competing forces

Several groups vie for power in Basra, Iraq’s second largest city

· Mahdi army A loose alliance of Shia militiamen, about half of which are connected to Moqtada al-Sadr’s office in the Shia holy city of Najaf. His men control the ports and customs as well as the customs police

· Fadhila party An anti-Iranian Shia militia organisation that controls the oil business in Basra, parts of the security forces and the ports and customs

· Badr brigade The armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Before the 2003 invasion it was based in Iran for 20 years

· Tribes There are at least 20 major tribes in the Basra area. Iraqis often feel the strongest allegiance to their tribe, above nationality. At least one influential tribe in the city runs its own smuggling business. They also support politicians in the city

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