Basra’s recent descent into violence has surprised the international community, but especially within Iraq. A confluence of factors have descended on the economically-vital city at a time when Iraq is still reeling from the Islamic State crisis and parliamentary instability. In this piece, serving British Army officer Archie Hicox (pen name) examines the issues facing Iraq’s economic capital.
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Basra is now the unwilling and unwitting pawn at the centre of a far larger conflict that has rumbled on since the revolution of 1979. The unrest is, in simple terms, a civil populace who are angry at polluted water supplies, corruption, central government indifference, and Iranian interference. Of course within these factors are a spectrum of allegiances, grievances, and tensions. This restive population and the covert and sometimes overt Iranian influence over the city has now reached a point where the withdrawal of all but essential US personnel from the consulate has been triggered.
The United States and Iran have had a fractious relationship for nearly three decades, interspersed with rare periods of, if not peace, then at least a grudging magnanimity. The recent escalation is centred on the United States desire to prevent a confident Iran projecting power into the so-called ‘Shia Crescent’ through Iraq and Syria and onwards into the Mediterranean, as well as preventing Iran gaining a viable Nuclear arsenal. Iran meanwhile seeks to contest the regional power of Saudi Arabia and safeguard the Shia heartland. The reason that the Iraqi city of Basra is in the spotlight centrestage of this “great game” is due to a confluence of factors.
After the recent Iraqi elections, already notorious following a decade of democratic elections for displaying anarchic in-fighting and power-plays, there is still a dearth of leadership. Barham Salih, a Kurd, has now been appointed President in what can only be a good thing for wider Iraq (and Iraqi Kurds in particular). However he will not fully grasp the cultural context of Basra as he is not from there, nor has he had the time to settle into his new role. Adel Abdul Mahdi, the newly appointed Prime Minster is a Shia compromise candidate. After Abadi was side-lined, Mahdi became the sensible choice that prevented the sectarian Nouri Al Maliki from returning to power. However, in a similar vein to President Salih, he is new in this post. Despite hailing from the Shia heartland and therefore understanding the problems of Basra, he is going to be too busy wrestling with the two Shia political blocs in the coming months to be able to fully engage with the Basra problem.
Geography continues to play its part, Basra is separated by both the physical distance from the central government, and also the conceptual. In terms of demographics the (currently, but soon to transition) Sunni-majority Baghdad and Shia nature of Basra play a part, but also the simple differences that geographical separation play on culture. The same principles apply for the restive Kurdish regions to the country’s North. Basra is physically isolated from the rest of Baghdad, but what it lacks in proximity it makes up for in oil wealth. The oil wealth brings prosperity to the city but mainly to a privileged few while also feeding the corruption of senior officials and many others involved in the lucrative oil trade. Basra’s strategic position on the Shatt al-Arab waterway is one of the reasons that in 2017 the Iraqi Parliament recognised the city as the economic capital of Iraq.
Criminality has been entrenched in Basra (at a level beyond that of a normal developing-world city) for over a decade, due to the confluence of the city’s dislocation from central government, oil wealth, and proximity to waterways that enable smuggling and a burgeoning criminal enterprise to exist. Add to this the powder-keg of international disputes between Iran/Iraq and US/Iran and it becomes apparent that Basra, despite its economic importance, is caught between a rock and a hard place. Oil wealth fuels the criminality, funding corruption and the organised elements of crime. It also means that Senior Officials in the pay of criminals are either unwilling or unable to intervene. The only viable alternative is an external task force to root out corruption and criminal groups. Most likely in the form of already thinly-spread Federal Forces such as the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), despite the fact that they are as overstretched as any of Iraq’s security forces due to their ongoing missions in country’s restive Sunni heartland areas to the North and West.
In conclusion, Basra is going to have to resolve its problems internally for the next few months until a workable political body in Baghdad can fully engage with it, by way of increased Federal troop numbers, increased funding to anti-corruption programs, and a reform of local police and border controls. Basra’s problems are not new, but the confluence of factors is. Basra imploding will not benefit Iraq, Iran, the criminals, or the wider world in the longer term. Therefore it is incumbent upon all of these groups to protect the balance of the city. This can be done by alleviating the ‘Wild West’ mentality that seems to have cloaked its streets. The local council can focus on fixing the water supply to prevent sickness and its corresponding burden on the healthcare system, this will placate the rightful anger of the populace. Iran, who may benefit in the short term through small victories such as the US withdrawal but would suffer from another failed region in the Shia heartland, can stop stoking anger in the city by reducing interference in its urban affairs. Central Government can impose Federal oversight on the local leaders and security apparatus to bring order back to the city and undermine the corruption facilitators. All of this is currently conspicuous in its absence, and therefore supports the US decision to roll back its consulate staffing to Baghdad; no one wants another Benghazi, and for now Basra looks like the most likely option for a repeat.
Suggested books for in-depth reading on this topic:
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- Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq (Reidar Visser)
- Bad Days in Basra: My Turbulent Time as Britain’s Man in Southern Iraq (Hilary Synnott)
- Iraq in the Twenty-First Century (Tareq Y. Ismael & Jacqueline S. Ismael)
- Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq (Greg Muttitt)
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Archie Hicox is the pen name of a serving British Army officer with an academic background in current affairs and international relations. He has deployed throughout the world on multiple operations, most of which are spent in mentoring roles with local forces. He is particularly passionate about Middle Eastern geopolitical affairs.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy – Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Aaron Peterson