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As British draw down, violence in Basra is up

Times Staff Writer

If it weren’t for the alcohol-free drinks, the scene could have been straight out of an English pub.

Young men sat in animated groups, sipping milkshakes and mugs of milky tea in a cozy, wood-paneled room. Others tucked into heaping plates of fish and chips. The TV was tuned to a soccer match, a game of pool was underway, and pop music pulsed in the background.

Until a crashing explosion sent everyone diving to the floor. For the next 10 minutes, the patrons of the restaurant at a British base here lay on their stomachs, waiting for the all-clear to sound.

Once an island of relative tranquillity in the mostly Shiite Muslim south, Basra has suffered a dramatic turnaround in the last two years.

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Thundering rocket and mortar strikes have become a near-daily occurrence at British bases in this city. British soldiers who once patrolled on foot in berets and no body armor now venture downtown only in armored convoys.

Although the violence pales in comparison to Baghdad, seven British soldiers have been killed in Basra in April, three by gunfire and four when a roadside bomb tore through their Warrior fighting vehicle.

The deaths pushed Britain’s monthly toll in Iraq to 11, the highest since 27 of its troops were killed in March 2003 during the invasion, according to the website icasualties.org, which tracks U.S. and British military casualties in Iraq.

The increase in violence comes as Britain begins to disengage from southern Iraq, leaving Shiite political parties and their militias to battle over the spoils. At stake is control of political patronage in Iraq’s second-largest city and of the billions of dollars in oil that flow through the country’s only seaport.

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In the latest power struggle, Gov. Mohammed Waili’s rivals on the Basra provincial council voted Saturday to unseat him, leaving the city of Basra on tenterhooks as residents wait to see how he -- and his gunmen -- will respond.

In sharp contrast to the U.S. military buildup, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in February that his country would withdraw 1,600 of its 7,200 troops in the spring, though British forces would continue to provide backup and training to Iraqis at least until 2008.

Britain has already turned over three southern provinces to Iraqi control and has pulled out of three bases in and around Basra, the last province under its authority. British troops are expected to leave a fourth base at a former presidential palace by summer’s end. Most British officials and troops have retreated to a safer location at the airport on the city’s southwestern outskirts.

Rise in attacks

British and Iraqi officials have struggled to explain the increase in violence. Some theorize that rival militias are vying to claim the honor of having driven out “occupiers.” Others suggest that Iran is fomenting the bloodshed by providing weapons, training and funding to the factions fighting British and U.S. troops on its doorstep.

Through most of 2006, British forces had recorded an average of 20 significant attacks per week in the four southern provinces under their control: Muthanna, Dhi Qar, Maysan and Basra. The number increased steadily from September, peaking at 90 incidents per week in February, and dropping to about 50 in March and April, said Lt. Col. Kevin Stratford-Wright, a British military spokesman.

British soldiers in Basra have grown so accustomed to the shelling that when the siren sounds at night, some roll out of their cots and fall back to sleep face-down on the floor in their flak vests and helmets. Most of the attacks do little harm, but six soldiers were injured in shelling recently at Basra palace.

Iraq’s Shiite heartland, which bore the brunt of the 1980-88 war with Iran and Saddam Hussein’s reprisals for a 1991 revolt, welcomed the arrival of the U.S.-led forces in 2003. But many here were shocked by what followed.

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“A tyrannical and oppressive regime has been removed, and it has been replaced with utter chaos,” said a Basra poet and university professor who asked to be identified only by his first name, Talib. “We thought this chaotic situation would last at most six months.... Now we are not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Critics say coalition forces took too long to establish political structures, leaving a vacuum in which conservative Shiite religious parties, backed by powerful militias and tribes, scrambled for power.

The factions took over entire units of the police force, and maneuvered their members into key positions in the government and state-run Southern Oil Co. Some also beat and killed unveiled women in a city once regarded as a liberal, intellectual center. And all are implicated in smuggling millions of dollars’ worth of oil, while the city is bereft of basic services such as electricity and clean water.

The vicious rivalry has resulted in periodic gunfights. But British officials say 90% of the violence is directed against them.

That, they argue, is the key difference between Basra and Baghdad. If British troops were taken out, what would be left is a mafia-style conflict for economic and political leverage, rather than the sectarian killing that is tearing Baghdad and other areas.

“This is Palermo, not Beirut,” said one senior British officer, who asked not to be identified.

For all the gangland-style kidnappings and killings, there is a degree of normality to life in Basra that eludes many other Iraqi cities. After the heat of the day has eased, men crowd into cafes along the canals to drink tea and smoke water pipes until the early hours of the morning. Families bring their children to a vibrant night market to buy ice cream and browse through stalls selling clothes and electronics.

‘River of blood’ feared

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But fear lurks beneath the surface, especially among the region’s minority Sunni Arabs and Christians.

In Zubayr, a religiously mixed village near Basra, tribal leaders worry that the Shiite militias could disrupt the fragile peace forged under the protection of British forces. If the British leave, said Sheik Fadi Mohammedawi, “you would find a river of blood in the street.”

Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nouri Maliki, imposed a state of emergency in Basra last year in a bid to stem the bloodshed.

At the national level, the leading Shiite parties joined forces under the banner of the United Iraqi Alliance to secure the largest share of parliamentary seats for Shiites, who make up about 60% of Iraq’s 27 million people.

But they have competed for power in the provinces. The deep fissures have paralyzed Basra’s government and now threaten Maliki’s fragile coalition.

The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, a party with ties to Iran that also works closely with the United States, dominates the Basra provincial council and the national Shiite alliance. But the party split in the vote for provincial governor, allowing Waili, of the smaller Al Fadila al Islamiya, or Islamic Virtue, party, to clinch the post.

Al Fadila, which controls the oil facilities protection force and key industry jobs, recently pulled out of the national Shiite alliance after Maliki refused to give the party the oil ministry.

The party used to have close ties to followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, SCIRI’s main rivals. Sadr’s loyalists boycotted the 2005 polls and have no council seats. But gunmen from the two sides clashed in March in what appeared to be a battle for control of the city’s electricity network. Two weeks ago, Sadr’s supporters were believed to be among hundreds of demonstrators who pitched tents in front of Waili’s office, pledging not to leave until he was removed from office.

The governor sent a desperate message to parliament claiming the protesters planned to kill him. Armed police commandos loyal to him staged a counterdemonstration. But some Al Fadila members quietly indicated they would accept Waili’s removal, provided his replacement came from within the party.

On Saturday, 27 of the council’s 40 members signed a vote of no confidence against the governor, just over the two-thirds required to oust him, council spokesman Nadim Jabiri said. Al Fadila’s 12 representatives did not attend the session. There was no immediate response from Waili.

British officials said the standoff was a test of the Iraqi authorities’ ability to keep a lid on the city’s simmering conflicts.

“The important thing is not what the security situation is,” Stratford-Wright said, “but whether Iraqi security forces can handle it.”

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zavis@latimes.com

Times staff writer Raheem Salman and a special correspondent in Basra contributed to this report.


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