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Where Is Iraq Heading? Lessons from Basra

Amid the media and military focus on Baghdad, another major Iraqi city – Basra – is being overlooked.

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Executive Summary

Amid the media and military focus on Baghdad, another major Iraqi city – Basra – is being overlooked. Yet Basra’s experience carries important lessons for the capital and nation as a whole. Coalition forces have already implemented a security plan there, Operation Sinbad, which was in many ways similar to Baghdad’s current military surge. What U.S. commanders call “clear, hold and build”, their British counterparts earlier had dubbed “clear, hold and civil reconstruction”. And, as in the capital, the putative goal was to pave the way for a takeover by Iraqi forces. Far from being a model to be replicated, however, Basra is an example of what to avoid. With renewed violence and instability, Basra illustrates the pitfalls of a transitional process that has led to collapse of the state apparatus and failed to build legitimate institutions. Fierce intra-Shiite fighting also disproves the simplistic view of Iraq neatly divided between three homogenous communities.

Lack of attention to Basra is understandable. Iraq’s future is often believed to depend on Baghdad, and most of the spectacular bombings have taken place in the centre of the country, far from the southern city. Observers, by now accustomed to the capital’s dynamics, have had difficulty making sense of Basra’s and so have tended to downplay them. Finally, because U.S. forces have not been directly involved, news coverage has been both limited to Arabic and British media and forced to compete with the gruesome violence that is tearing the centre apart.

But to neglect Basra is a mistake. The nation’s second largest city, it is located in its most oil-rich region. Basra governorate also is the only region enjoying maritime access, making it the country’s de facto economic capital and a significant prize for local political actors. Sandwiched between Iran and the Gulf monarchies, at the intersection of the Arab and Persian worlds, the region is strategically important. Sociologically, Basra’s identity essentially has been forged in opposition not only to the capital but also to other major southern cities such as Najaf and Karbala. For these reasons, it is wrong either to ignore it or lump it together with an imaginary, undifferentiated Shiite south.

On its face, Basra’s security plan ranked as a qualified success. Between September 2006 and March 2007, Operation Sinbad sought to rout out militias and hand security over to newly vetted and stronger Iraqi security forces while kick-starting economic reconstruction. Criminality, political assassinations and sectarian killings, all of which were rampant in 2006, receded somewhat and – certainly as compared to elsewhere in the country – a relative calm prevailed. Yet this reality was both superficial and fleeting. By March–April 2007, renewed political tensions once more threatened to destabilise the city, and relentless attacks against British forces in effect had driven them off the streets into increasingly secluded compounds. Basra’s residents and militiamen view this not as an orderly withdrawal but rather as an ignominious defeat. Today, the city is controlled by militias, seemingly more powerful and unconstrained than before.

What progress has occurred cannot conceal the most glaring failing of all: the inability to establish a legitimate and functioning provincial apparatus capable of redistributing resources, imposing respect for the rule of law and ensuring a peaceful transition at the local level. Basra’s political arena remains 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, conflicts re-emerge and even apparently minor incidents can set off a cycle of retaliatory violence. A political process designed to pacify competition and ensure the non-violent allocation of goods and power has become a source of intense and often brutal struggle.

Basra is a case study of Iraq’s multiple and multiplying forms of violence. These often have little to do with sectarianism or anti-occupation resistance. Instead, they involve the systematic misuse of official institutions, political assassinations, tribal vendettas, neighbourhood vigilantism and enforcement of social mores, together with the rise of criminal mafias that increasingly intermingle with political actors. Should other causes of strife – sectarian violence and the fight against coalition forces – recede, the concern must still be that Basra's fate will be replicated throughout the country on a larger, more chaotic and more dangerous scale. The lessons are clear. Iraq’s violence is multifaceted, and sectarianism is only one of its sources. It follows that the country’s division along supposedly inherent and homogenous confessional and ethnic lines is not an answer. It follows, too, that rebuilding the state, tackling militias and imposing the rule of law cannot be done without confronting the parties that currently dominate the political process and forging a new and far more inclusive political compact.

Iraq is in the midst of a civil war. But before and beyond that, Iraq has become a failed state – a country whose institutions and, with them, any semblance of national cohesion, have been obliterated. That is what has made the violence – all the violence: sectarian, anti-coalition, political, criminal and otherwise – both possible and, for many, necessary. Resolving the confrontation between Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds is one priority. But rebuilding a functioning and legitimate state is another – no less urgent, no less important and no less daunting.

Damascus/Amman/Brussels, 25 June 2007

Mutanabbi Street on a Friday afternoon. 2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Picturing Baghdad

Despite their traumatic history, Iraqis are finding individual and civic solutions to their country’s political failures. Crisis Group photographer Julie David de Lossy visited Baghdad in October-November 2018 and returned with portraits of its people’s search for normalcy.

Iraq has endured decades of sanctions, war, invasion, regime change and dysfunctional government. These span Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, a devastating eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s and crippling UN sanctions throughout the 1990s. Those difficult years gave way to the traumas of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and its chaotic aftermath, which brought the insurgents of the Islamic State to the outskirts of the Iraqi capital Baghdad in 2014.

While governments form and collapse behind the blast walls of Baghdad’s Green Zone, life in the rest of the city has grown resilient to the disruptions of politics. Iraqis are finding individual and civic solutions to collective problems that politicians and state are failing to address.

Crisis Group photographer Julie David de Lossy joined our Senior Iraq Adviser Maria Fantappie in the city in October and November 2018. Her images portray a people whose public spaces – main streets, coffee houses and marketplaces – bear the scars of all its upheavals. But they also communicate Iraqis’ ambition to overcome them and capture moments in their search for normalcy against enormous odds.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

It’s late October 2018, and the new prime minister is forming his government. He is promising meaningful reform to a dysfunctional political system. This change is hard to imagine, since political actors and rules of the game remain largely the same. The next ruling coalition is likely to be a “government of enemies”, one of our interlocutors tells us. But the streets of Baghdad feel distant and indifferent to the details of the struggle for power within Iraq’s narrow political elite.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Mutanabbi Street, named after a 10th-century Iraqi poet, is the heart of Baghdad’s book trade. Even at peaks of violence and political crisis, Fridays here have remained a melting pot for Iraqis of all backgrounds. Enjoying calmer hours on this Muslim day of prayer and rest, booksellers in the pedestrian zone mix with vendors of tea, songbirds, street food and antiques.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

For less than a dollar, anyone can buy a bird in Baghdad’s Mutanabbi Street. The buyer then frees the bird, believing this will avert the evil eye of bad fortune and bring good luck to the bird’s liberator.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Iraqis born after 2000 have grown up in a city divided by checkpoints and the invisible walls erected by sectarian conflict. From northern Iraqi Kurdistan to southern Basra, whatever their sect or ethnicity, young people share similar grievances and seek rights as citizens. But political participation among young Iraqis is still overshadowed by a legacy of division and parochial politics.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Shahbander Coffeehouse in Mutanabbi Street reflects Iraq’s resilience. Open since 1917, the coffeehouse outlasted a deadly bombing in 2007 and has preserved many architectural features of old Baghdad. Despite the city’s volatility, its owners take pride in hosting several generations of established and aspiring intellectuals.

31 October 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

An image of the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, one of the most contentious figures in post-2003 politics, hangs on a Baghdad street corner. The Shiite cleric moves in and out of Green Zone politics. He led calls for the formation of a militia that fought against the U.S. occupation in 2004-2008. His Sa’iroun electoral list won 54 seats in the May 2018 elections, the largest number of seats of any party. The Sadrist movement has proved canny at capitalising on the changing moods of the Iraqi street.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

A Friday morning walk in Mutanabbi Street.

1 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Inside the walls of the Green Zone where senior politicians operate, the formation of the latest government continues. On 2 October, Adel Abdul Mahdi was tasked with forming a cabinet. On 24 October, several technocrats were sworn in as new ministers and charged with important reforms. Yet the survival of this government, as with those that preceded it, still hinges on maintaining a balance of power between ethnic and religious groups and fragile coexistence between Iran and the U.S. in Iraq.

3 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Though widely underrepresented in government, women are a leading force in civil society. Initiatives here are trying to shape new policy agenda focused on society’s needs rather than the self-serving interests of politicians. But civic-minded activists and politicians remain disconnected, blocking the way for new figures and new ideas to be channelled into decision-making.

4 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Baghdad’s millennials are the beating heart of citizen-led initiatives. Civil society has grown more vibrant as politicians fail to resolve the challenges affecting people’s daily lives, whether ending the economic crisis or preventing the rise of the Islamic State. Civil society groups are prioritising issues often neglected by politicians, including family law, ecology, urbanisation and archaeological conservation.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

When we ask ordinary Iraqis about what they expect from the new government during informal conversations, their answers frequently highlight their continuing distrust of politics and politicians. People want reforms that have a direct, positive impact on their everyday lives.

31 October 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

The defeat of the Islamic State in 2017 has reduced violence, but Iraqis still have to cope with an economic crisis aggravated by the fall of oil prices. Iraq remains completely dependent on oil revenues, which feed a bloated public sector. The private sector, far from rewarding independent business owners, remains an extension of the politicians’ patronage network.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

A family prepares for an evening outing on the Tigris. In the summer of 2018, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which supply almost all of the country’s drinking and agricultural water, fell to the lowest levels in living memory. Water shortages provoked a series of riots in Basra during the summer heat in mid-2018. Iraqi officials blame Turkey and Iran for drawing off too much water from both rivers and their tributaries but still do not consider water management a policy priority.

31 October 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

The sun sets over the Tigris River running through Baghdad.