The southern provinces of Maysan, Dhi Qar, Muthanna, and Basra are populated almost entirely by Shi’a Arabs, in the major cities of Amarah, Nasariyah, and Basra, as well as in the rural marshlands. Of these provinces, Basra is the primary economic hub.
Iraq’s southernmost province, Basra is situated along the Shatt al-Arab waterway, where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers flow together into the Persian Gulf. Basra province, which shares the name of its provincial capital, contains Iraq’s largest oil reserves.1 It is the only Iraqi province with maritime access, and is therefore home to Iraq’s lucrative ports, though which Iraq exports most of its oil.2 Therefore, while Baghdad may be the political capital of Iraq, Basra has long been Iraq’s economic capital.
The city itself spreads out along the western bank of the Shatt al-Arab, roughly thirty miles from the Persian Gulf. The Basra Palace is located along the water, in the southeastern part of the city. The city center, with its historic neighborhoods, is situated to the north and west of the palace. Highway 6 runs parallel to the Shatt al Arab through western Basra, dividing the center of the city from the western slums of al-Hyyaniyah, al-Husayn, and the outlying neighborhoods along a second highway that runs southwest from Basra towards Kuwait. At the northern edge of the city, the Qarmat Ali River flows eastward into the Shatt al-Arab. The University of Basra, Basra’s smaller Maqal airport, and the Basra power plant lie along its southern bank. From the southern edge of the university, a third highway runs west towards Nasiriyah. The airport, which lies five miles west of the city, has served as the single Coalition base in the area since British forces pulled out from the city center last summer.
Basra is the third-largest city in Iraq and the largest south of Baghdad.3 It has traditionally been among the most cosmopolitan cities in Iraq, with a rich history that dates to the seventh century. While the population is predominantly Shi’a, there are pockets of Sunnis and Christians.4 These groups have generally coexisted peacefully, earning Basra a reputation for being a tolerant and secular city. The city is also socioeconomically diverse. Basra has a large, well-educated middle class;5 yet, it also has a sizeable lower class, whose members have largely come from Maysan Province and northern Basra Province. Following the draining of the marshes in the early 1990s, these migrants moved south and settled in the neighborhoods on the outskirts of Basra, such as al-Hyanniyah, al-Husayn, al-Jumhuriyah, and Khamsa Meel.6 These poorer neighborhoods became the main Sadrist strongholds of Basra.
During the 2003 invasion, Basra was the first Iraqi city to fall to the Coalition. British forces then took responsibility for Basra province and the three neighboring provinces to the north—Maysan, Dhi Qar, and Muthanna. Britain’s hasty planning left it without a well-conceived strategy for Basra’s post-conflict stabilization.7 Consequently, while Basra was relatively calm during the early years of the war, the state’s collapse of enabled Islamist parties—namely the Sadrist Trend, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and Fadhila—to expand their influence and roles in Basra.8 These groups were able to solidify their standing as the primary players in the political process during the January 2005 elections.9 At this time, the British looked upon any Iraqi tribal movements in Basra were with suspicion. For example, the first British candidate to head Basra’s advisory council, the top sheikh from the Bani Tamim tribe, was vehemently rejected by the other factions in the city.10 After this, the primary shareholders in the Basra political system were the Islamist political parties, all of which were backed by their militias.
By late 2004, violence in Basra was steadily increasing. In the wake of the uprising by Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi militia in Najaf and Karbala earlier that year, many of the fighters moved to Basra. The influx of Jaysh al-Mahdi militiamen fueled the increase in violence, as the fight between the Shi’a factions for control of the city’s lucrative resources intensified, particularly during the period surrounding the January 2005 elections. The Sadrist Trend, ISCI, and Fadhila all vied for control of the oil infrastructure and smuggling network; the security forces; and the provision of public services and state resources.11 Targeted assassinations, kidnapping, sectarian violence, gunfights, and widespread criminality accompanied this struggle, which persisted throughout 2005 and 2006.12
Throughout this time, militia groups intensified their attacks on the British forces in Basra. As the quantity and the quality of the attacks increased—especially with the initial employment of sophisticated and lethal explosively-formed penetrators (EFP) in mid-2005—British forces became ever more limited in their physical movements.13 “With British forces spending increasing amounts of time at their bases, militiamen also upped their mortar and rocket attacks on [their] bases, exploiting the reduction of preemptive patrols by British forces.”14 As a result, British forces became less and less able to reverse the deteriorating security situation.
Like the British, the population of Basra also found themselves subject to increasing militia intimidation and violence. The Jaysh al-Mahdi has been most active in its imposition and enforcement of strict Islamic rule in Basra, especially targeting women. Graffiti warnings sprung up throughout Basra threatening women wearing make-up or without strict Islamic dress.15 Jaysh al-Mahdi also drove moderate or secular Shiites from the public sphere.16 The militia prohibited Western and Arabic secular music, violently punishing individuals caught selling or playing it.17 The militia only permitted religious songs or ringtones, many of which praised Muqtada al-Sadr. Most citizens stayed inside their homes instead of facing the threat of militia death squads and “vice enforcers”.18
In a last effort to reclaim the city from militia control, British forces launched Operation Sinbad in late September 2006. This six-month operation originally sought to purge the highly-infiltrated police force of militia elements, yet it eventually grew into an operation to challenge militias directly, while tackling a number of reconstruction projects. By that point, however, the British forces lacked the numbers and the resources to successfully undertake the operation.19 Despite a brief decline in assassinations and criminality during the operation, by the time it ended in March 2007, violence spiked and the British troops were again subject to relentless attacks on their positions in Basra.20 This essentially forced the British to withdraw to their compound at the Basra Palace and at the airport, in a move that was widely seen as a victory for the militias.21
The British continued their withdrawal from the Basra city center throughout the summer of 2007. In actuality, the British had been downsizing their force presence since the early years of the war. While there were 26,000 British forces in Iraq in May 2003, by July of that year, the number had dropped to roughly 9,000.22 Yet from April until September 2007, British forces steadily withdrew from their base at the Basra Palace to their main base at the Basra airport, on the outskirts of the city. This process was completed on September 3, 2007, when the British forces turned over the Basra Palace to Iraqi Army Lt. General Mohan al-Freiji, the head of the Basra Operations Command.23
The Basra Operations Command (BOC) had been created by the Iraqi government in June 2007 to improve the Iraqi command structure.24 Modeled on the Baghdad Operations Command, the BOC oversaw all Iraqi Security Force (ISF) operations in the province and coordinated with the Coalition to manage the security transition during the British withdrawal.25 Lt. General Mohan al-Freiji, who was previously responsible for security in Karbala, was appointed to head the command; he worked closely with Maj. Gen. Jalil Khalaf, the chief of police in Basra, who was given the difficult task of purging the Basra police force of militia elements. While Mohan and Jallil were seen as “the last hope for Basra” by both the British forces and the Iraqi government, they were unable to reassert government control over the city as the British drew back.
This central government was equally unable to enforce its political rule in Basra. In late July 2007, as the British withdrawal was underway, Maliki fired the Basra Governor Mohammed Waeli, who was a member of the Fadhila Party. Maliki had come under increasing pressure to dismiss Waeli, following a no-confidence vote by the Basra Provincial Council. The vote was initiated by ISCI representatives (who hold 20 of 41 seats on the Council but were able to muster a majority of votes) on grounds of corruption and oil smuggling.26 Maliki ratified this dismissal on July 28, 2007; however, Governor Waeli refused to step down and referred the order to the federal Supreme Court.27 Maliki was powerless to enforce the order as Waeli remained in power, demonstrating the weakness of the central government.
In the absence of a large Coalition presence, the security situation in Basra deteriorated further.28 The withdrawal of the British from Basra effectively turned control of the city and its critical oil and shipping infrastructure to the Shi’a political groups and their militias. Despite the worsening security situation, British forces formally transitioned the province to Iraqi control on December 16, 2007.29 Subsequently, the competition between Shi’a political factions and their militias escalated unchecked as each group tried to expand their control over government institutions and security forces. The International Crisis Group described the situation:
“Fadhila, which controls the Oil Protection Force—the unit responsible for safeguarding wells, refineries, and pipelines—essentially is in charge of the oil infrastructure. The small Hizballah party has a strong presence in the Customs Police Force. For some time now, [ISCI] has been most influential in the intelligence service. The Sadrist current dominates a large segment of the local police force, together with the Facilities Protection Service—supposedly in charge of protecting government infrastructure—and the port authority.”30
Daily violence—gunfights, assassinations, corruption, intimidation, and criminality—persisted, as did the intimidation of the local population. This presented an enormous challenge for the central Iraqi government and the Coalition, which faced the prospect of holding provincial elections by late 2008. It was under these conditions that Maliki decided to launch his offensive in Basra.
Early on the morning of Tuesday March 25, 2008, the Iraqi Security Forces launched a major offensive termed Saulat al-Fursan, or Operation Knight’s Charge, to reclaim control of Basra by defeating militias in the area. Iraq Report 9, The Battle for Basra, describes the operations in detail. Fighting between the government security forces and the Iranian-supported militias erupted across the city and the hasty planning for the operation soon became evident. The newly-formed and inexperienced 14th Iraqi Army Division struggled to contain the violence during the first few days of fighting, as they faced unexpectedly strong resistance due to large amount of Iranian weapons provided to the militias.31 To stabilize the situation, Iraqi reinforcements were quickly rushed to Basra from Anbar Province.32 The fierce fighting continued for nearly a week, until Sadr ordered his fighters off the streets on March 30, 2008. Interestingly, the ceasefire was brokered in Iran, by the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) and followed negotiations between key leaders from rival Shi’a political parties.33
Seasoned Iraqi reinforcements arrived in Basra in early April, only days after Iranian-brokered ceasefire. They immediately embarked upon more deliberate security operations in Basra, systematically clearing the city from mid-April to mid-May.34 Following the ceasefire, many JAM and Special Groups leaders fled Basra. To evade the security crackdown, some went to neighboring Maysan province, a large Sadrist stronghold, while many others crossed the border to Iran.35
Following the clearing of Basra in the spring of 2008, Iraqi soldiers with the 1st Iraqi Army Division, who were sent from Anbar at the onset of Operation Knight’s Charge, entered Maysan province to continue their offensive against Shi’a militants. On June 12, large numbers of Iraqi Security Forces arrived in the province and began preparatory operations—fanning out through the provincial capital of Amarah; reconnoitering and clearing key routes; and replacing the guards along the Iranian border to interdict criminal movements. Like he did in the Basra and Sadr City offensives, Prime Minister Maliki also gave an ultimatum for gunmen in Maysan to turn in their weapons. On June 19, the day the ultimatum expired, the Iraqi Security Forces launched Operation Promises of Peace, to clear JAM and Special Groups criminals from Amarah.36 The security offensive in Maysan met with minimal enemy resistance; Sadrist politicians and clerics, wishing to avoid the destruction that accompanied the push into Sadr City, instructed their followers not to resist the government’s operations. Moreover, any Special Groups and JAM leaders that remained in Maysan in the wake of the Baghdad and Basra offensives fled to Iran before the operations commenced in Amarah.
Since mid-2008, security in the southern provinces has been stable, although Iranian-backed militia and JAM elements are still present in the south and seeking to rebuild their networks.
On March 31, 2009, responsibility for Multi-National Division-Southeast (MND-SE, which is comprised of Basra province) was transferred from British Maj. Gen. Andy Salmon to the commander of Multi-National Division-Center (MND-C), Maj. Gen. Michael Oates.37 Upon the transfer, MND-C and MND-SE combined to form Multi-National Division-South (MND-S). MND-S encompasses all of the provinces south of Baghdad.
Excerpted from Marisa Cochrane, “The Battle for Basra,” Iraq Report 9, Institute for the Study of War, June 23, 2008; Marisa Cochrane, “Special Groups Regenerate,” Iraq Report 11, Institute for the Study of War, September 2, 2008.
1 Sam Dagher, “Basra Oil Fuels Fight to Control Iraq’s Economic Might,” The Christian Science Monitor, September 19, 2007.
2 United States Energy Information Agency, Country Analysis Brief: Iraq, Last Updated: August 2007.
3 Population estimates for Basra city vary greatly. 2003 estimates hover between 1.3 million and 1.7 million. Estimates for Basra province are closer to 3 million.
4 International Crisis Group, “Where is Iraq Heading? Lessons from Basra,” Middle East Report No. 67, June 25, 2007, p. 1.
5 Stephen Farrell, “Divining a Lesson in Basra,” The New York Times, May 25, 2008; Michael Knights and Ed Williams, “The Calm Before the Storm: The British Experience in Southern Iraq,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Focus #66, February 2007, p. 4.
6 International Crisis Group, “Where is Iraq Heading? Lessons from Basra,” Middle East Report No. 67, June 25, 2007, p. 1.
7 British forces initially planned to enter Iraq via the north, through Turkey. This was only changed less than three months before the invasion in January 200,3when the Coalition decided it would invade from the south and British forces were instead given responsibility for Basra and Maysan province. Michael Knights and Ed Williams, “The Calm before the Storm: The British Experience in Southern Iraq,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Focus #66, February 2007, p. 6.
8 For more information on the main Shi’a political parties in Basra, see “Fact Sheet on Iraq’s Major Shi’a Political Parties and Militia Groups, April 2008,” Institute for the Study of War, April 2008.
9 Edward Wong, “Shiite Morality is Taking Hold in Iraq Oil Port,” The New York Times, July 7, 2005.
10 Michael Knights and Ed Williams, “The Calm before the Storm: The British Experience in Southern Iraq,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Focus #66, February 2007, p. 12.
11 International Crisis Group, “Where is Iraq Heading? Lessons from Basra,” Middle East Report No. 67, June 25, 2007, p. 12.
12 Michael Knights and Ed Williams, “The Calm before the Storm: The British Experience in Southern Iraq,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Focus #66, February 2007, p. 27; International Crisis Group, “Where is Iraq Heading? Lessons from Basra,” Middle East Report No. 67, June 25, 2007, p. i.
13 Michael Knights and Ed Williams, “The Calm before the Storm: The British Experience in Southern Iraq,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Focus #66, February 2007, p. 27, 30.
14 Michael Knights and Ed Williams, “The Calm before the Storm: The British Experience in Southern Iraq,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Focus #66, February 2007, p. 30.
15 Mona Mahmoud and Mike Lanchin, “Basra militants targeting women,” BBC News, November 15, 2007; Andrew North, “Basra’s new era brings new fears,” BBC News, December 14, 2007.
16 Michael Knights and Ed Williams, “The Calm before the Storm: The British Experience in Southern Iraq,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Focus #66, February 2007, p. 31.
17 Stephen Farrell and Ammar Karim, “Drive in Basra by Iraqi Army Makes Gains,” The New York Times, May 12, 2008; Leila Fadel, “Basra sings again as Iraqi Army patrols the streets,” McClatchy, May 24, 2008.
18 Stephen Farrell and Ammar Karim, “Drive in Basra by Iraqi Army Makes Gains,” The New York Times, May 12, 2008.
19 Raymond Whitaker, “Operation Sinbad: Mission failure casts doubt on entire British presence in Iraq,” The Independent, October 8, 2006.
20 International Crisis Group, “Where is Iraq Heading? Lessons from Basra,” Middle East Report No. 67, June 25, 2007, p. i.
21 Karen DeYoung and Thomas E. Ricks, “As British Leave, Basra Deteriorates; Violence Rises in Shiite City Once Called a Success Story,” The Washington Post, August 7, 2007.
22 Michael Knights and Ed Williams, “The Calm before the Storm: The British Experience in Southern Iraq,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Focus #66, February 2007, p. 9.
23 Stephen Farrell, “British Troops Begin Withdrawal from Basra,” The New York Times, September 3, 2007.
24 Luke Baker, “Britain backs "M and J" as southern Iraq security honchos,” Reuters, November 1, 2007.
25 Sam Dagher, “As British troops exit Basra, Shiites vie to fill power vacuum,” The Christian Science Monitor, September 17, 2007.
26 Michael Knights and Eamon McCarthy, “Provincial Politics in Iraq: Fragmentation or New Awakening?”, Annexes, Policy Focus #81, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, April 2008.
27 United Nations Security Council Report S/2007/608, October 2007, p. 3.
28 While initially it seemed that the British pullout from the city resulted in a decrease in violence, by December 2007, when formal provincial control was turned over to the Iraqis, it was widely understood that the security situation had worsened in the intervening months. Sam Dagher and Abdul-Karim al-Samer, “British hand over Basra in disarray,” The Christian Science Monitor, December 17, 2007.
29 Sam Dagher and Abdul-Karim al-Samer, “British hand over Basra in disarray,” The Christian Science Monitor, December 17, 2007.
30 International Crisis Group, “Where is Iraq Heading? Lessons from Basra,” Middle East Report No. 67, June 25, 2007, p. 11-12.
31 James Glanz and Alissa J. Rubin, “Iraqi Army Takes Last Basra Areas from Sadr Force,” The New York Times, April 20, 2008.
32 Marisa Cochrane, “The Battle for Basra,” Iraq Report 9, Institute for the Study of War, June 23, 2008, p.8.
33 Marisa Cochrane, “The Battle for Basra,” Iraq Report 9, Institute for the Study of War, June 23, 2008, p. 9.
34 Marisa Cochrane, “The Battle for Basra,” Iraq Report 9, Institute for the Study of War, June 23, 2008, p. 10-13.
35 Marisa Cochrane, “The Battle for Basra,” Iraq Report 9, Institute for the Study of War, June 23, 2008, p. 15.
36 Multi-National Corps-Iraq Press Release No. 20080620-06, “ISF clear insurgents out of Amrah,” Multi-National Corps-Iraq PAO, June 20, 2008.
37 Multi-National Corps -Iraq Press Release No. 200900401-01, “MND-C, MND-SE combine to create MND-South,” April 1, 2009.