Michael Knights, a British security expert on southern Iraq, says despite British efforts to improve security in and around Basra, “effectively a Shiite civil war” rages there with competing militias seeking overall power. “Controlling the deep south of Iraq is like robbing a bank for many of these militias. It provides an almost endless source of revenue which can then be turned into political influence,” says Knights, who serves as a Lafer International Fellow for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and is vice president of the Olive Group, a private security company that has been working in Iraq for more than three years.
You and your colleague, Ed Williams, have produced a timely report, The Calm Before the Storm: The British Experience in Southern Iraq, on the situation in southern Iraq. Britain just recently announced a withdrawal of troops from that region. How would you summarize the overall situation now in southern Iraq?
Because of a deteriorating security situation in Basra, the UK forces launched Operation Sinbad last fall. Since June, when there were around 140 people officially reported as murdered in Basra, this figure dropped to around thirty per month as we came into this winter. Any kind of surge of security forces within a city will temporarily reduce the levels of violence in those neighborhoods. But the key issue is whether positive changes will remain after the surge is completed and the numbers of UK forces have drawn down again.
We’ve seen other positive signs in Basra over the last few months. One of the most important was the action taken by UK forces to break up the notorious Jameat police station in central Basra, which had long been a center of corrupt activities including illegal detention of both Sunnis and Shiites who were being targeted by militias. Also, the Jameat police station was the center of bomb making activities, including the explosively formed penetrator, or EFP munitions that we’ve heard so much about recently.
There’s been a vacuum at street level where political power has been seized by armed militias associated with Sadrist movements and with the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, as well as a number of smaller neighborhood militias and criminal factions.
The Jameat police station was run by a group of different factions who on the single issue of making money and gaining influence were quite content to work together, and to penetrate the police intelligence organs so that they could dominate the city. In December we saw UK forces end a year-long effort to break the power of the Jameat, disperse those corrupt police officers, and remove them from the police force.
More broadly, in southern Iraq, the UK has been reducing its presence across the board. First Muthanna and Dih Qar provinces were handed over to Iraqi control, and UK multinational forces largely withdrawn. Then, over the last couple of months we’ve seen UK forces pull back from Amara, the capital of Maysan Province, and hand over control to Iraqi forces. This withdrawal of UK forces and handover of control to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense has resulted in temporary increases in violence that rather quickly burned themselves out. Provinces such as Maysan are lawless and have seen extensive militia influence.
Now obviously the problems in southern Iraq are not caused by Sunnis against Shiites as they are in central Iraq. These are Shiites fighting among themselves for influence, yes?
Yes. It’s arguable that within the south of Iraq, particularly the southernmost four provinces, what we’re seeing is, effectively, a Shiite civil war. A civil war is often defined as meaning that there is no recognized, centralized control, and that different factions believe they are the legitimate government within a certain area. There are multiple contending claims to leadership within a certain area. This is certainly the case in southern Iraq. Various factions including a broad number of Sadrist movements only loosely associated with Muqtada al-Sadr’s control have been vying for dominance with other factions such as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Violence has sometimes reached quite severe levels, particularly in places like Basra and Amara, the two main cities in what you might call the deep south of Iraq.
And the Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the head of the Shiites, is not able to bring this under control?
Ayatollah Sistani theoretically wields great influence in southern Iraq. But being that he is a “quietist” preacher, meaning one who only rarely involves himself in temporal or worldly politics, his influence has not been used as regularly as the coalition or the Iraqi government would have liked. As a result, there’s been a vacuum at street level. Political power has been seized by armed militias associated with Sadrist movements and with the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, as well as a number of smaller neighborhood militias and criminal factions. It’s also been noted that one of the key determinants of power in southern Iraq is the ability of militias to control illegal oil smuggling. Literally billions of dollars worth of oil have been smuggled out of the country to sell at the inflated prices of the world market and this money has been directly sent into the coffers of local political and criminal factions.
This is oil meant for the domestic market in Iraq?
Yes, oil is sold at a very low government subsidized rate within Iraq and is meant for local consumption. Instead, this oil is diverted to external sale through the black market to sell at the inflated world price. This has created vast fortunes for many of the militias who control places like Basra and the southern oil fields. Controlling the deep south of Iraq is like robbing a bank for many of these militias. It provides an almost endless source of revenue which can then be turned into political influence.
And the British forces have not been able to stop this?
British forces have faced the challenge that all factions in Basra and the deep south of Iraq are involved in oil smuggling. This can be done at a neighborhood level through the tapping of oil pipelines, or it can be done at the highest levels of provincial government by diverting oil to the black market ports in the northern gulf.
I understand the central government of Prime Minister Maliki has little influence over these people.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki attempted in the spring of last year to crack down on highly autonomous activities of the Basra governor Muhammed al-Waili, and the other factions operating in Basra. Maliki only achieved partial success. The Basra governor and the other factions, all of whom are involved in oil smuggling, made it very difficult for either the central government or the British military to truly crack down on oil smuggling. It should also be remembered that almost the entire Basra economy and the economy of the deep south of Iraq, more generally, is somehow connected to this illegal trade in oil, so the effects of cracking down on oil smuggling would be very widespread and would engender serious resentment amongst the people
That’s fascinating. You’re making Baghdad almost look like an easier place to govern than Basra. Is that the case?
The security environment within Basra is immeasurably less hostile than Baghdad, so Basra is easier to police than the Iraqi capital. However, Basra’s political scene is also extremely complex and there are deeply embedded, extremely well-funded militias controlling all aspects of the city’s governance and to some extent its security forces.
What’s happened to the middle class of Basra that your book describes as well-entrenched and fairly cosmopolitan before the war?
Throughout the 1990s, the middle class in Iraq saw an erosion of its material standard of living, as did almost everybody else in the country. However, the mindsets and the outlook of the middle class generally survive longer than the material basis of their class. So the middle class in Basra still exists as a community of people. But many have fled Iraq. Whether they be doctors or technocrats or university lecturers, these people have fled Basra in equal numbers as have fled other parts of Iraq. This is particularly true because of the concerted attack on technocrats and independent political candidates who did not associate themselves with the main Islamist political parties. So by and large the middle class has been reduced in size; it still exists but it keeps its head down.
I thought interesting your full description, in your book, of these EFP’s [explosively formed penetrators], which only become widely known to most Americans in the last few weeks after the Baghdad press conference accusing Iran of supplying them to Shiite insurgents.
Explosively formed projectiles, or EFPs, are a very niche military technical phenomenon. However, they’ve gained quite a political profile as their importation into Iraq and their supply to Shiite militias have been associated primarily with Iranian influence in the country. When you speak to UK military officials on the ground, they believe that the transfer mechanism used to bring EFPs into Iraq is Lebanese Hezbollah bomb makers whose journey to Iraq and access to materials is probably facilitated by Iranian intelligence officers. The most contentious aspect of this phenomenon is discerning exactly how high up the Iranian government chain of command this kind of activity has reached. Is it Iranian national policy or is it something much more local and idiosyncratic?
It’s obviously a very devastating weapon.
Yes, it is. What makes the EFP so important in Iraq is that it can penetrate almost any armored vehicle that the coalition can field and that it can be deployed quite far away from roads, so that even if coalition forces are searching for roadside bombs, they now have to search an extremely large area around the roads.
Summing up, what will Basra look like in a few months?
There had been a chance for UK forces to mold the kind of political environment that might have developed in post war Iraq. That moment seems to have passed, perhaps as early as the summer of 2003.
When you speak to UK military officials on the ground, they believe that the transfer mechanism used to bring EFPs into Iraq is Lebanese Hezbollah bomb makers whose journey to Iraq and access to materials is probably facilitated by Iranian intelligence officers.
Instead, Islamist militia influence has grown tremendously strong, particularly in light of the enormous funding that has been provided through illegal oil smuggling. It’s arguable now that UK forces cannot dislodge this deeply embedded Islamist militia presence, and that only local security forces such as the Iraqi army have the ability to do this. Operation Sinbad was a valiant attempt to purge some of the most corrupt elements of the Iraqi police service in Basra and to create a “moment” which local security forces might be able to seize to strengthen their grasp over the city. In the next 18 months, as UK forces pull down to around 4,000 troops in and around Basra, the main mission ofUK forces will be to back up these Iraqi security forces in seizing this moment. But the chances of doing this are probably no greater than one in two.