Perhaps the most important aspect of the recent British withdrawal from the urban centre of Basra to a base near the city’s airport is the reaction from local political forces. So far, the loudest response has come from the Sadrists, who publicly claim that their armed campaign led to the British withdrawal.
The Sadrists claim is in fact a remarkable echo of events that took place as early as 2003. On Friday 6 June of that year, Sadrists demonstrated peacefully in the city of Basra. Their principal demand was as follows: the withdrawal of British forces from the population centres of Basra, and the concentration of all foreign forces “at locations on the outskirts of the city”. In the subsequent period, the Sadrist protests gradually grew more violent, and Basra soon became more dangerous for British troops. As early as 2004, British influence was in steep decline. In other words, the recent pullout itself was a largely symbolic affair: the British ceased exercising effective control of Basra a long time ago.
Also Western commentators – particularly in the United States – have suggested that the Basra pullout represents “British defeat”. However, that judgment rather exaggerates the differences between “gangland Basra” and what is construed as the more “pacific” central parts of Iraq. The main difference between the US and the British approach does not relate to militia power as such, but rather to the extent to which there has been an attempt to manipulate the political games in which the militias take part. In the south, the British have largely maintained a neutral position, with a variety of armed factions coexisting in some kind of uneasy equilibrium, and with a diverse range of political forces gaining power: the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI, formerly SCIRI) in Samawa and Nasiriyya; the Sadrists in Amara; Fadila in Basra. In the rest of Iraq, US forces have largely allied themselves with Kurdish and ISCI parties and their militias (technically “integrated” in the security forces and the Iraqi army), and have supported these groups in their efforts to suppress internal dissent. Ideologically, this has been presented as an effort to build a “moderate” base; in practice it has involved giving consent to much highhandedness by local authorities. Thus, repression and militia rule are not absent from the US-controlled parts Iraq, but they take on a more orderly form than in the far south. In fact, in many ways it was the early US concessions to the ISCI-Kurdish militia axis that emboldened these parties to make maximalist demands on issues like Kirkuk and a single Shiite federal region and in turn created many of the subsequent complications in the process of national reconciliation in Iraq. Washington apparently had to do this because its own military strength in Iraq was deemed insufficient – something which British military authorities, for their part, were critical about early on.
Over the coming months, both the position of the Sadrists and the further development of militia relations in Basra will be crucial. There is some indication that relations between Fadila (which remains in control of the governorate despite a vote of no confidence) and Sadrists have improved slightly during the summer. Muhammad al-Waili, Basra’s governor, has spoken out for the release of Sadrist prisoners held by the British. The Sadrists in the Iraqi parliament appear to have backed Waili in his confrontation with the Maliki government: it was the Sadrist chairman of the legal committee in Iraq’s parliament who signed a recent letter of protest against the government’s decision to remove Waili. On the other hand, ISCI has in the past been skilful in forestalling alliances between its two main competitors in Basra, and, moreover, could now benefit from the handover to Iraqi government forces.
Westminster-centric analyses of the British withdrawal have pondered whether the timing was linked to the Labour Party’s upcoming annual conference. The more important question is who will be Basra’s governor three months from now. It would be a setback to the image of the Iraqi army as a “neutral player” if the first thing to happen after the British withdrawal were the ouster of Fadila and the fall of one of the last bastions of resistance to ISCI rule in the Shiite parts of Iraq.