News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqOil, politics and bloodshed corrupt an Iraqi city

Oil, politics and bloodshed corrupt an Iraqi city


New York Times: Politics, once seen as a solution to the problems of a society broken by years of brutal single-party rule, has paralyzed the heart of Iraq’s south. The New York Times


BASRA, Iraq — Politics, once seen as a solution to the problems of a society broken by years of brutal single-party rule, has paralyzed the heart of Iraq’s south.

This once-quiet city of riverside promenades was among the most receptive to the American invasion. Now, three years later, it is being pulled apart by Shiite political parties that want to control the region and its biggest prize, oil. But in today’s Iraq, politics and power flow from the guns of militias, and negotiating has been a bloody process.

“We’re into political porridge, that’s what’s changed,” said Brig. James Everard, commander of the British forces in Basra. “It’s mafia-type politics down here.”

Police reports from the past five months read like war chronicles: Eight oil company employees murdered. Twenty caches of Russian rockets discovered, including a pile in the back of an ambulance. A tank of stolen oil found in a fake mosque. Shootouts reported between a politician’s militia and the police, and between police officers.

Now, after two years of relative calm, Basra has a soaring murder rate (the 85 killings in May were nearly triple the number in January), a tattered oil industry and a terrified population.

“I cannot talk with you,” said Sajid Saad Hassan, a professor at Basra University’s agriculture college. “I haven’t joined a party and no militia is protecting me.”

The story of Basra’s descent traces the arc of the war itself. People here, mostly Shiites whom Saddam Hussein oppressed, embraced the invasion. But for the next three years, Baghdad put its resources into fighting insurgents in central and western Iraq, leaving the quiet Shiite south to find its own way.

But the rules have fallen away along with the end of Mr. Hussein’s rule, leaving a broken landscape of empty state institutions.

“So much of the state melted after Saddam fell,” an American official said. A primordial soup of political parties, their militias and tribes filled the void. They formed morals patrols at the university, commanded entire units of the flimsy police force, and moved into positions of power in the company that controls the vast oil-processing and transportation network.

Now, with provincial elections still many months away, a bloody power grab has ensued. It is a battle being waged from inside Basra’s institutions and will be particularly difficult for the prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, to stop. Indeed, three days after he vowed to crack down with an “iron fist” and imposed a state of emergency, a bomb killed 27 in a market here.

In the shadowy world of Shiite politics, the fight is over power. One party, Fadhila, is currently on top. Its members include the governor and the chairman of the Provincial Council. Fadhila has close ties to Moktada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric whose grass-roots militia is among the most powerful here.

Aqeel Talib, a senior member of the party, argues that a disagreement over federalism is one of the issues dividing the parties. The party and its two main competitors — the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa Party — all had different visions for a southern Shiite region.

In Fadhila’s model, Basra Province, the only one it controls, would stand on its own. “We as Fadhila, we want to make our province our own region,” Mr. Talib said. “We have two million people, an airport, a port and oil — everything we need to be a state.”

Qadim al-Muqdadi, a professor in Baghdad University’s media college, explained: “Each political party believes he is better than the other at running the country. They don’t rely on the power of thought; they rely on the power of the gun and the tribe.”

At the heart of much of the fighting is oil. The fields in this province are the richest in Iraq, and the crude oil they pump makes up all of Iraq’s current exports, which in turn pay civil servants’ salaries. Officials in Baghdad say the parties and their militias play a major role in rampant theft.

“If you don’t understand what’s happening there, follow the dollar sign,” said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, the national security adviser. “There is a 6,000-barrel-per-day difference between the level of production for export and the level of actual export. It goes into the pockets of these warlords, militias, organized crime, political parties.”

Fadhila, the dominant political party, controls the guard force that protects the vast network run by the state-owned Southern Oil Company.

Fadhila says it has helped keep the oil flowing in hard times; its political opponents argue that it is perfectly positioned to profit. A senior party official in Baghdad denies any profiteering.

The guards “have weapons,” said Hassan al-Rashid, the former governor and an opponent of Fadhila, and “these weapons are not in honest hands.”

Few in Basra would agree to speak openly about oil, and the industry has been impenetrable to Western officials in Basra, who said they could not even identify the major players.

“It’s not just one party, so everyone keeps silent,” said a provincial council member, who asked for anonymity out of concern for his safety. “If you tell about me, I tell about you.”

Whatever the case, violence has spilled into the industry. From May 5 to May 9, two oil company officials and a harbor official were killed, according to the police reports. In early March a bomb exploded in the office of Aqil Abdel Samad, a senior oil company official, wounding him.

“The violence we’re seeing on the street, it is a big turf war,” said a Western official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak with the media. Basra’s police have been unable to separate the warring parties or stop graft because the force, stacked with men who are affiliated with the parties, is part of the problem.

The city’s current chaos, in fact, can be traced in part to the formation of the new police force. British military officers acknowledge that the early background checks, which they oversaw, were poor to nonexistent, and the major political parties took the opportunity to pack their people onto the force. A weak-willed police chief allowed himself to be bullied into accepting party loyalists, the current chief said.

“The parties embarrassed him,” said the chief, Maj. Gen. Hassan Swadi al-Saad. “Everyone came to him with names and he employed them.”

One result is a force that has 37,000 members, 50 percent more than authorized, spread across the four provinces patrolled by the British in southeast Iraq, according to Col. Sundey Sunderland, who is in charge of logistics planning for the British military. (Also, the Facilities Protection Service, which guards schools, oil rigs and mosques and has been heavily infiltrated by militias, numbers 25,000.)

There have been skirmishes among corrupt police units, particularly those dealing with major crimes, internal affairs and criminal investigations.

Some of those forces captured and held two British officers last fall, and the British military has begun to purge them. “They were assassins going around killing people,” said Laszlo Szomoru, a British senior police adviser in Basra.

The police reports are illustrative. On May 22, officers from the intelligence unit, one of the more heavily political divisions, raided a Southern Oil Company building, and on April 25, two guards from the oil protection force were charged with breaking into an auto store, killing a guard there, and stealing two cars.

The police have also apparently done nothing in the face of sectarian killings of Sunni Arabs, whose portion of the population has shrunk rapidly over the past year. Some Sunnis suspect the police of carrying out most of the killings.

The parties’ power inside the police complicates law enforcement for the British. In January, for example, they identified several men suspected of running death squads, siphoning oil and shooting at British soldiers. Soldiers arrested them, and for the next three months, the local government refused to speak to the British.

“You arrest someone, and the next day you’re on the phone to the governor, to the chief of police,” said Brigadier Everard. “We say, ‘We know he’s yours, but we did it for the following reason.’ ”

The province has also sunk into political paralysis as the governor, Muhammad al-Waeli, tried but failed to fire General Saad, the police chief. The provincial council has tried, also unsuccessfully, to remove Mr. Waeli, but has not been able to garner the two-thirds majority it needs. The only thing they could all agree on, it seemed, was to refuse all contact with the British.

Baghdad is also powerless to remove provincial officials, who are protected from the central government under Iraqi law.

Basra’s troubles would be fewer were it not for the influence of neighboring countries, particularly Iran.

Although the British military is skeptical, General Saad says many of the parties derive their strength from Iran. The parties themselves accuse one another of being Iranian stooges.

“Every day I have reports of 190 pilgrims coming from Iran,” he said. “Are they pilgrims or are they intelligence officers?”

Illegal crossings appear to be common. On Feb. 1, the Basra border police arrested 23 Iranians who said they were pilgrims crossing illegally at Chlat, according to a police report. Just five days later, they arrested a man whom they identified as Hadi Dalqi Bukhtyar, a colonel in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Weapons that have not been seen since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s abound, and local police officials say they believe many are coming from Iran. The police noted finds of 106 Russian-made Katyusha rockets and 35 antitank missiles, also Russian, over five months beginning in January.

“Most people here are asking themselves, is this Basra?” Professor Hassan said helplessly.

James Glanz contributed reporting from Baghdad for this article, and an Iraqi employee of The New York Times from Basra.

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