Where is Iraq heading? Lessons from Basra

Damascus/Amman/Brussels, 25 June 2007: The British experience in Basra, far from being a model to be replicated in the rest of Iraq, is an example of what to avoid.

Where Is Iraq Heading? Lessons from Basra, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines the city's descent into chaos under British occupation, offering important lessons for Baghdad and the nation as a whole. Coalition forces there already implemented a security plan in many ways similar to the current "surge" in the capital and its environs. As in Baghdad, one of the putative goals was to pave the way for a takeover by Iraqi forces. Today, however, Basra is controlled by militias which are even more powerful than before.

"With renewed violence and instability, Basra illustrates the pitfalls of a transitional process that, instead of building legitimate institutions, has led to collapse of the state apparatus", says Crisis Group Senior Analyst Peter Harling. "Fierce intra-Shiite fighting also disproves the notion of an Iraq neatly partitioned between three homogenous communities".

Basra's political arena is in the hands of actors engaged in bloody competition for resources, undermining what is left of governorate institutions and coercively enforcing their rule. The local population has no choice but to seek protection from one of the dominant camps. Periods of stability do not reflect greater governing authority so much as they do a momentary-- and fragile-- balance of interests or of terror between rival militias. Inevitably, cycles of brutal retaliatory violence re-emerge.

As the U.S. prosecutes its security plan in Baghdad and other parts of the country, the lessons from Basra are clear. First, the answer to Iraq's horrific violence cannot be a military surge that aims to bolster the existing political structure and treats the dominant political parties as partners. Secondly, violence is not solely the result of al-Qaeda-type terrorism or sectarian hostility, however costly both evidently are. Thirdly, violence has become a routine means of social interaction utilised by political actors doubling as militiamen who seek to increase their share of power and resources.

The Basra experience suggests the most likely outcome in Iraq is its untidy break-up into myriad fiefdoms, superficially held together by the presence of coalition forces. If this is to be avoided, the priority should be to confront the power structure whose establishment was supported in the wake of the 2003 invasion, as well as the parties that now dominate it, by insisting on genuine political compromises and a more inclusive system of governance.

"It is high time that Washington and London acknowledge that their so-called Iraqi partners, far from building a new state, are tirelessly working to tear it down", says Robert Malley, Crisis Group's Middle East Program Director.

Contacts: Andrew Stroehlein (Brussels) 32 (0) 2 541 1635
Kimberly Abbott (Washington) 1 202 785 160
To contact Crisis Group media please click here