x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Death squads return to Basra

The Iraqi army maintains a tight grip on the oil-rich southern province, but there are fears that militias are waiting to strike.

BAGHDAD // Tired of life as an impoverished refugee in Syria, Abu Tariq returned to his home in Basra in the summer of 2006, prepared to wait out the rising violence and unrest in hope of a better future. His subsequent stay in Iraq's second city lasted three years, during which time he watched first as militias took over, then as they were pushed back by a major government offensive in the spring of 2008. That operation, codenamed Charge of the Knights, was supposed to have restored order and finally cemented Baghdad's control, enabling British forces to leave behind a secure and peaceful city when they finally ended their Iraq mission in April.

But in a series of interviews, Basra residents, security officials and politicians told The National there is growing concern that militants are still at large and that the city remains a potential tinderbox. Abu Tariq was suitably alarmed about developments after the January provincial elections that, in April, he returned to Damascus, a refugee once again. The 45-year-old fled from Basra this second time at short notice, bringing his son, his pregnant wife, a couple of suitcases and US$1,200 in cash.

"It's not something I wanted to do, I didn't want to leave my home again especially with my wife soon to give birth," he said. "But I felt I had no choice. Things were happening that worried me, it's getting dangerous again in Basra." Specifically, Abu Tariq, who says he formerly worked as a low-level office administrator with relatives of Saddam Hussein, feared a death squad that was purging members of the old regime was hunting him.

"There has been a black BMW car going around Basra and it was driven by murderers, they've been killing people," he said. "One day they came to my work and were asking about me but I wasn't there at the time, then they came past my house and asked for me. "They actually stopped me in the street and asked if I knew where this man was. I was shocked when they gave me my own name but they didn't know my face. I told them I'd never heard of him."

Within hours he and his family were on a bus north to Baghdad, where they applied for visas to Syria. "I wasn't going to take a risk with something like that," he said. "I see the situation in Basra is getting worse again. For a time after the government forces fought the militias it was much, much better. But now, no. The killings are slowly returning, there are criminals, kidnappings. The political parties are competing for power and that's a dangerous mixture.

"It's not like you see on the news, the atmosphere has changed for the worse. There are political killings again, traders, journalists and lawyers are starting to feel frightened again." In a telephone interview, an Iraqi working as a local security adviser with US forces stationed on Basra airport, said the situation was "90 per cent" better than two years ago, but that there were still worries. "It's much safer than it was in 2007 and most of the militias are not working now," he said, on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media.

"Some of the militias are still here, they are sleeper cells. They find it difficult to work because the Iraqi army is quite strong, but they are still there. They are sleeping, they are waiting for an opportunity. "You can't say the militias are smashed, they are just not active at the moment. And there is still Iranian influence here and strong potential for Iranian intervention which may also be a problem."

In the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, Basra was put under British control and, by the end of 2007, Shiite militias wielded significant power in the traditionally tolerant city, executing university staff, forcing non-Muslim women to wear Islamic headscarves and smashing shops selling alcohol. Iraqis, including the central government and the US military, complained that the British had effectively conceded the oil-rich city to militants.

The Iraqi offensive of 2008, supported by the American military, forced the militias, principally the Mahdi Army, off the streets after days of bloody clashes and restored some sense of normality. The operation was considered a turning point for Nouri al Maliki, the prime minister, and, newly confident in his armed forces, he quickly de-fanged the powerful Mahdi Army across the south and in Baghdad.

The campaign had a unifying effect on Iraq, going some way to convincing Sunnis that the Shiite head of government was prepared to stand against Shiite extremism, not just Sunni radicals. According to the Iraqi adviser to US troops, the changes brought about in Basra have endured; women are no longer forced to wear Islamic headscarves, with many girls attending the city university choosing not to cover their heads, something that would have been unthinkable in 2007. Alcohol is still not openly sold, however; the stores selling it were forcibly shut down by militias and have not reopened.

"The main thing people are upset about is the heat and the lack of electricity. The power has still not been fixed, nor has the water. People don't feel they are getting good public services." Unemployment in Basra is estimated to be running at 40 per cent and, despite the security improvements, investment has been slow to materialise. Lingering economic hardship could breathe new life into the dormant militants, local politicians said.

"Much has been done to hunt down the militias but I am not sure we can know if they have been eliminated," said Haidar Al Jawarni, a member of Iraq's national parliament from Basra. "The Iraqi security forces are trying hard to detect any sleeper cells. They have destroyed the large [militia] formations but there is still a danger that militias will revive themselves and they will seize on any weakness in the performance of the Iraqi Army or police.

"They will also perhaps work to take revenge against army and police leaders. "It's important that the local government in Basra continues its work to develop the economic situation because although the city has oil reserves it still suffers poverty." Reider Visser, an expert on southern Iraq and editor of specialist website 'historiae.org', said Basra remained in a state of unease, with unexplained detentions on the rise and hard-line Islamic strictures once more creeping into local governance. "My impression is that the security situation in Basra over the past months has been characterised by a surge of the number of arrests of people accused of unspecified 'serious and/or terrorist crimes'," he said. "So there are certainly persistent tensions in the area, but, for now at least, the government forces seem to be able to maintain control. The other main trend which worries some people is a drift back to strict Islamic etiquette in the provincial administration - a move reportedly headed by the new pro-Maliki governor." A senior Sunni tribal sheikh from al Faw, a peninsula at the mouth of the Shat al Arab waterway that separates Iran and Iraq, spoke to The National on condition of anonymity and with the understanding that his location not be revealed because he remains in hiding after a series of threats against his life.

"The situation in Basra is dangerous, the war is not over there yet, no matter what some people would like you to believe. Basra is rich with oil and everyone wants to control it. All the political parties are still fighting about that, quietly and not in the open. That fight may come into the open again when the Americans leave." Basra is a majority Shiite province and from 2003 to 2008, Sunnis were subjected to a campaign of violent intimidation that left many dead and drove families away from their homes. A much-diminished Sunni population does remain in the province. The tribal leader served on local councils after the American invasion and said he favoured co-operation with the British and US on a pragmatic basis; the reconstruction projects they offered were of more benefit to the population than violent resistance to occupation.

"Many of the ingredients that caused so many of the problems we had are still there. If government forces stay strong that will help but that is something we will still have to see about. The future is still very uncertain in Basra." Thousands of Iraqi troops are currently deployed in and around the city. While that has helped keep the lid on militias it has not met with universal approval and is itself a cause for concern.

"On every street, on every corner there are police and army," said Abu Abdullah, an Iraqi businessman from Basra. "It's a police state, it feels like a city under siege. There is security, but there is not freedom and not the kind of security that actually makes you feel truly safe. How real is any security if it needs so many soldiers to keep it that way? It must be fragile." Although his trading firm does most of its business in Basra, Abu Abdullah lives outside of the city, returning only when he has to. He has no intention of moving his family back into Basra.

"There are too many potential problems to go back yet," he said. "For example, I trust the army but I don't trust the police. The army is national, they are recruited from all over Iraq, and they are professional. The police are from Basra so you know they are never going to be impartial or free from the influence of political parties. We still think they are with the militia." nlatif@thenational.ae