The Battle for Basra
Over the last year, operations by Coalition and Iraqi forces have made significant gains against al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni insurgents. As the threat from these groups has decreased, Coalition Forces and the Iraqi government have focused their attention on the problem of Shi’a militias in central and southern Iraq. Nowhere was this threat more evident than in the southern city of Basra. In the wake of the premature British withdrawal from the city center and transition to an overwatch capacity in late 2007, Basra became a haven for militia and criminal activity. Rival Shi’a militias were engaged in a violent and protracted power struggle as drugs, weapons, and oil smuggling rings thrived. In late March 2008, the Iraqi government launched an offensive to reclaim the city from the militias. Iraq Report 9 offers a comprehensive look at the battle for Basra, Operation Knight’s Charge.
Topic 1: Basra Before the Offensive: The Rise of the Militias
- <!--[if !supportLists]--> <!--[endif]-->Basra province has long been the economic seat of Iraq, with the country’s largest oil reserves and only maritime access. Its provincial capital, Basra city, has traditionally been a cosmopolitan, secular, and diverse city.
- <!--[if !supportLists]--><!--[endif]-->While Basra was relatively calm during the early years of the war, the state’s collapse enabled Islamist parties—namely the Sadrist Trend, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and Fadhila—to expand their influence and roles in Basra.
- <!--[if !supportLists]--><!--[endif]-->By late 2004, violence in Basra was steadily rising. The Shi’a Islamist parties vied for control of the city’s lucrative resources. Targeted assassinations, kidnapping, sectarian violence, gunfights, and widespread criminality accompanied this struggle, which persisted throughout 2005 and 2006.
- <!--[if !supportLists]--> <!--[endif]-->The British forces were also targets of relentless militia attacks. Moreover, they lacked the numbers and resources to stem the growing violence. By mid-2007, the British withdrew from the city center to their main base at the Basra airport, on the outskirts of the city.
- <!--[if !supportLists]--> <!--[endif]-->In the absence of a large Coalition presence, the security situation in Basra deteriorated further, as the competition between Shi’a political factions and their militias escalated unchecked. This presented an enormous challenge to the central Iraqi government, which faced the prospect of holding provincial elections by late 2008.
Topic 2: Maliki’s Decision to go to Basra
- <!--[if !supportLists]--><!--[endif]-->Maliki’s decision to act against the militias in Basra stemmed from economic, security, and political considerations.
- <!--[if !supportLists]--> <!--[endif]-->The widespread corruption, oil smuggling, and militia control of Iraq’s shipping hub all posed a serious economic threat to a government beset by debt.
- <!--[if !supportLists]--> <!--[endif]-->The security problems that resulted from escalating violence and militia control posed the practical problems for the conduct of the election. If the government security forces were unable to secure the city, they surely would not be able to secure the polling stations and prevent voter intimidation.
- <!--[if !supportLists]-->The Government of Iraq also needed to combat the growing threat of malign Iranian influence in Basra.
- <!--[if !supportLists]--><!--[endif]-->Maliki also faced the political threat of a no-confidence vote and needed to bolster his appearance as a strong, effective leader.
Topic 3: Maliki’s Gamble: Operation Knights Charge
- <!--[if !supportLists]--><!--[endif]-->While Coalition and Iraqi forces planned to launch an offensive in Basra in the summer of 2008, Maliki wished to accelerate the start of the operation.
- <!--[if !supportLists]--><!--[endif]-->On March 24, 3008, Prime Minister Maliki arrived in Basra to personally oversee the offensive. The next day, the Iraqi Security Forces launched Operation Knight’s Charge to restore stability and law to the province by purging criminal elements in the area.
- <!--[if !supportLists]--><!--[endif]-->By the end of the first week, the offensive reached a stalemate. In the face of Iranian-supported enemy resistance, the Iraqi Security Forces were unable to take control of the Jaysh al-Mahdi’s heavily fortified neighborhood strongholds. The intense clashes continued with neither side gaining momentum.
- <!--[if !supportLists]--><!--[endif]-->An agreement between Muqtada al-Sadr and representatives from rival Shi’a parties, brokered in Iran by the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), seemed to calm the violence in Basra at the end of March. The next day, Iraqi Security Force reinforcements arrived in Basra and prepared for larger-scale clearing operations.
- <!--[if !supportLists]--><!--[endif]-->During the month of April, reinforced Iraqi troops conducted systematic and thorough clearing operations. The house-to-house searches turned up a remarkable amount of Iranian munitions.
Topic 4: Reconstruction Begins
- <!--[if !supportLists]--><!--[endif]-->As the security operations progressed, Iraqi Security Forces and the Government of Iraq also stepped up their efforts to deliver food, water, services, and medical aid to residents.
- <!--[if !supportLists]--> <!--[endif]-->In an effort to expand the security forces, the Iraqi Army held several recruiting drives that witnessed an impressive turnout, even in Sadrist neighborhood strongholds.
- <!--[if !supportLists]--><!--[endif]-->The need to expand the Iraqi government’s security presence in Basra has offered a window of opportunity for tribal movements in Basra. Maliki reached out to Shiite tribes shortly after his arrival in the city and he moved to establish local security volunteer groups to employ the tribesmen until they could be incorporated into the government’s forces.
- <!--[if !supportLists]--> <!--[endif]-->The security gains during the Basra offensive have breathed new life into the city. Basra’s residents are beginning to enjoy their newfound freedoms, uncertain of how long they will last.
Topic 5: From Basra to Baghdad
- <!--[if !supportLists]--><!--[endif]-->The offensive in Basra provoked a strong reaction by Sadrists across southern Iraq and in Baghdad. While the Iraqi Security Forces were able to contain the violence in most of the southern cities, the Sadrist uprising in Baghdad was most forceful.
- <!--[if !supportLists]--><!--[endif]-->In Baghdad, initial civil disobedience movements gave way to violence. Iraqi Security Forces and gunmen, and rival Shi’a groups clashed in several Baghdad neighborhoods. Mortar and rocket rounds were launched from Sadr City at the heavily-fortified Green Zone and surrounding neighborhoods.
- <!--[if !supportLists]-->In an effort to stem these attacks, Coalition and Iraqi forces encircled Sadr City, and prepared, for the first time in years, to move into the area in force.
The Basra offensive marked the first time the Shi’a-led Iraqi government seriously took on the problem of Shi’a militias, namely Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi militia. Despite their shaky start, the Iraqi Security Forces, with important Coalition enablers, were able to reclaim vast swaths of Basra from militia control. Moreover, the Government of Iraq was able to reassert control of the economically vital ports and oil infrastructure and Prime Minister Maliki was able to improve his standing as a decisive and powerful leader. The residents of Basra are experiencing, for the first time years, a level of personal freedom denied by the Islamist militias. Yet, some important questions and concerns remain regarding the performance of the Iraqi Security Forces, the state of the enemy, and the sustainability of the security gains.
In an impressive mobilization of resources, the Iraqi Security Forces were able to muster roughly 30,000 troops to participate in the Basra operations. Iraqi soldiers and police were able to conduct complex counterinsurgency operations, with Coalition Forces functioning only in an advisory capacity. Still, the early weeks of fighting exposed serious challenges and shortcomings of the Iraqi Security Forces and the Government of Iraq: insufficient staff planning; a reliance on Coalition Forces for close air support, other combat enablers, and logistical support; and lingering personnel challenges. These shortcomings are not unique to the most recent offensive. While Coalition and Iraqi forces aim to mitigate these problems, it will likely take significant time and effort to do so.
There is much still to be done in Basra. Corruption, a lack of basic public services, and high unemployment still plague the city. Many residents fear that the security gains, and the personal freedoms that accompanied them, are not permanent. Indeed, they are fragile and reversible. The operations in Basra did not fully eradicate Shi’a militias. The Jaysh al-Mahdi militia and Iranian-backed Special Groups have suffered heavy losses in Basra and their networks in the south have been disrupted; however, they are not entirely defeated. Rather, it is likely that have gone underground with the intention of evading the security crackdown, reconstituting, and resurfacing at a later point. Additionally, the Islamist political parties remain in power in Basra, and as such, they remain a threat to the historically moderate, secular order preferred by most Basrawis.
It is all the more important, therefore, to continue full-spectrum counterinsurgency operations in Basra—conducting both security operations and political and economic reconstruction efforts. Iraqi Security Forces must continue their offensive against the Shi’a militias and Special Groups—maintaining a permanent security presence in former militia strongholds, confiscating illegal weapons, and targeting criminal remnants. Furthermore, the Iraqi government must also make good on its commitments of reconstruction aid and payments for local security volunteers. Finally, the government should continue to engage those groups that have been excluded from the political arena, particularly the tribes, while strengthening moderate political forces. If upcoming provincial elections are to have any chance at success, the Government of Iraq, the Iraqi Security Forces, and their Coalition partners must work resolutely to consolidate security gains and improve economic conditions in Basra.