News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqIslamist militias gaining in strength

Islamist militias gaining in strength

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The Guardian: Basra has not been beset by the levels of violence seen in Baghdad and the Sunni triangle but the relative calm that has held since the fall of Saddam Hussein is now under threat, say residents and diplomats. The Guardian

Michael Howard in Baghdad

Basra has not been beset by the levels of violence seen in Baghdad and the Sunni triangle but the relative calm that has held since the fall of Saddam Hussein is now under threat, say residents and diplomats.

They draw a picture of a once proud but now impoverished port city steadily falling under the sway of competing Shia Islamist groups and their militias. The groups are said to have infiltrated all levels of the police and local authorities, and are answerable to no one but their religious leaders and party bosses.

“Basra can go from order to chaos because of the infiltration of the authorities here,” said Nasr Hussein, a teacher in a Basra high school who used to sit on the local council. “There are so many rival loyalties that could undermine the security situation.” The British forces were only giving “an illusion of control” and the government in Baghdad was “hopeless”.

One western diplomat in Baghdad, who visited Basra recently, said the militias were becoming increasingly involved in the lucrative smuggling trade, controlling the ships that trade not only in contraband oil, but in sheep, dates and araq, an aniseed-flavoured spirit. He said British troops had generally adopted a restrained approach to security, which had helped to keep the peace but done little to stop the Islamists. The rising number of attacks against British targets was an indication that other influences could be at work.

“Iran is said to be everywhere,” he said. “Sending in weapons and funding and planning attacks to make life as uncomfortable as possible for British troops.”

There are also real problems with the way Basra is run. In May, the police chief of Basra province told The Guardian he trusted only 25% of his officers. Half were secretly working for militias, and some were carrying out assassinations. Militiamen loyal to the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr were kidnapping police not part of their group, occupying offices, and arresting Iraqis said to be violating Islamic law. “They kidnapped me and my five-year-old son because we did not display a picture of Sadr in our car,” said Faris Husseini, a shopkeeper. “It’s like being back under Saddam.”

But Sheikh Sala al-Obeidi, a Sadr spokesman in Najaf, said the Mahdi army was simply filling the gap left by the government. “What happened yesterday with the British was actually a case of Iraqis coming to support the right of the police to investigate the captured soldiers.”

The fledgling central state appears powerless to stop the two main rival Shia militias in Basra: the Mahdi army and the Badr brigade of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri). In part that is because the militias are linked to the state: Sciri is the dominant party in the Shia-led alliance that rules in coalition with the Kurdish bloc, and even Mr Sadr is moving closer to the mainstream.

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