Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Battle of Basra

The BBC and The Guardian report gun battles in the streets of Basra. There is a template for reporting on this is already fairly well developed: the 'Iraqi forces' are cracking down on intra-sectarian warfare, trying to bring peace to the streets of Iraq's southernmost region, the Basra Governate. This warfare is between three players - the Al-Fadhila party (an offshoot of Sadrism), the Mahdi Army, and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC). The latter, of course, currently occupies the Interior Ministry on behalf of the invading armies, so the implication that the 'Iraqi forces' are taking a neutral role in this struggle is palpably absurd. It is also the main party to the coalition government with the Dawa Party, which also hopes to co-dominate the southern regions. Reporters know perfectly well that this is not a neutral crackdown on some sectarian rivalry that is simply getting out of hand, and perhaps by the time you read this that pretense will have been given up.

So what is this apparently 'regional' struggle about? A few things, I think. Sadr's movement has recently broken its ceasefire and launched a series of attacks against the occupying forces, including - so it is believed - rocket attacks into the Green Zone. (General Petraeus is saying that Iran is behind these attacks, but then he would). They have been organising cross-sectarian meetings demanding the end of the occupation. The occupiers will probably be encouraging its most avid collaborators to crack down on this tendency, especially given that the Mahdi ceasefire has been one of the most important bases for the recently declared success. If the 'Iraqi forces' can't do the job, look out for a redeployment of British troops, over 4,000 of whom are currently bunkered down in Basra airport. Secondly, in the past few days Sadrists have accused the Dawa Party and its government allies of waging a war of liquidation against the Sadrist movement in the central and southern regions, in anticipation of the implementation of the federalism laws written by the US and pushed through in 2006, and the upcoming provincial elections which the Sadrists could very well win. The SIIC has recently made a bid to consolidate its control of the Basra Governate by getting a motion of no confidence passed against Mohammed al-Waili, the governor of the province and a prominent Al-Fadhila member, which explains why the latter are fighting their corner. Thirdly, the Sadrists are threatening a no-confidence vote in Maliki's government and a campaign of civil disobedience against the occupation forces. Maliki doesn't have to put up with a vote of no-confidence so long as the confidence of the occupiers, and the occupiers don't put up with anything so long as they still rule.

Finally, and most importantly, the new provincial powers will help overcome long-running obstacles to a new oil law [pdf draft], just as Chevron are getting in on the act (any access to new oil fields "would require passage of the long-stalled oil law"). Essentially, the oil benchmark they seek would allow two thirds of Iraq's oil fields to be owned by US corporations. It would place executive decision-making power in a body, the Iraqi Federal Oil and Gas Council, which could include foreign oil companies. Iraqis overwhelmingly oppose these plans, and the Council of Representatives has consistently obstructed them on the grounds that they are too extreme. The US has used every manner of bribery and threat to try and get the law passed [pdf]. They need it to be passed now, and for Production Sharing Agreements to be developed across the board in order for the US to have long-term leverage over the oil. Even if the US permitted the oil to be developed and sold by non-US firms, their access would be dependent on the political authority of the US, and its ability to wield effective violence. The trouble is, even the occupiers' Iraqi allies can't be trusted with strong central power, as they demonstrated by inviting Ahmadinejad. Breaking up the power structure along sectarian lines while maintaing a nominal central government with weak legitimacy, depending on US troops for its self-defence and encased in a Xanadu-like unreality next to a mammoth US embassy is the best remedy for that. Now there is a Provincial Powers Law in preparation, which will define the relationship between the central government and the provinces. It has to be supported by the Council of Representatives and backed by the Presidency Committee (led by US ally Jalal Talabani) and so far it has not been. As Missing Links points out, these powers are the subject of extensive horse trading and are seen by the US authorities as a key means of gaining acquiescence among key allies for the oil law.

Now, here's the trouble. If the anti-federalist forces win the elections, succeed in generating a national civil disobedience campaign against the occupation, and form alliances to break down the sectarian partition including its geographical expressions - those walls that have cut through Baghdad regions against the will of the local populations - then the US will be facing a crisis just at the time when a domestic election could decisively shape the future direction of the war. The regional-sectarian war is thus a struggle over how the most important property forms in the 'New Iraq' will be elaborated and under whose political control. Bear in mind that oil has historically been the number one source of revenue in Iraq, reaching 90% of total revenues at one point, and will the basis upon which necessary imports are purchased and the regeneration and development of Iraq after two especially miserable decades is carried out.

Sadr is calling for 'civil revolt'. Although his forces have been opportunistic at times, brutal at others, the Sadrist movement is perhaps the only major Shi'ite political formation capable of overcoming the sectarian drift of Iraqi politics. Sadr has been one of the few Shi'ite leaders to try and make alliances with Sunni resistance groups and one of the few to oppose the sectarian partition of Iraq. But now the US wants British troops to launch a 'surge' across the south to destroy its enemies. Since Sadr can mobilise a serious revolt, and since the Iraqi army and police are probably not well placed to crush it, even with the Badr corps auxiliaries and the Special Police Commandos working away, British troops might well end up doing as the US is asking. However, bear in mind also that these 'Awakening Councils' are threatening to fall apart - they are threatening a 'strike' if the US doesn't pay up its debts, and the whole thing has always been based on money and convenience. That being the case, the US might not really need a major conflagration might now.