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Maliki Declares Federal Control in Basra

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has appointed a three-man council to takeover security matters in Basra, Iraq’s southern port city. Basra is Iraq’s largest Shi’a majority city, and it has been rife with Shi’a militia squads loyal to either the Fadhila Party or the Sadriya movement of Muqtada al-Sadr. While Basra lacks the high-profile suicide attacks which grab headlines in Baghdad and surrounding areas, the militias and simple criminality have hampered the city during the three years in which British troops have overseen external security while attempting to train local police to maintain law and order.

Basra has furthermore been a sore spot for the central government in Baghdad because of conflicts over control of the local oil infrastructure. During the interim government of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Fadhila controlled the oil ministry and were widely accused of using it to enrich themselves. When Maliki came into office he sacked the Fadhila minister and appointed an independent, Hussein al-Shahristani, who has been given credit for cracking down on corruption. Fadhila was elected as part of the ruling United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), but retaliated by refusing to participate in the government, and is now in opposition. Although Fadhila is the smallest of the four Shi’a parties which make up the UIA, its power base in Basra gives it strength there (Reuters provides more background on this local power struggle).

Now, as reported in the Iraqi newspaper Al-Rafidayn, the prime minister has appointed a three-man council made up of Ali Hamadi (former border guard chief) as chair, Abd al-Khadr Mahdi (current legate of the Interior Ministry), and General Ali Ibrahim (from the Defense Ministry). The article notes that they were chosen in part because of their independence from local Islamic parties, presumably meaning Fadhila and the Sadriya. The article states that they carried a letter from the prime minister giving them authority over “all the security organizations” in the Basra Province, including the ability to appoint chiefs of each entity. Effective Tuesday August 7, their authority was to last one month subject to renewal by the prime minister.

Not surprisingly, the decision has not been popular among local officials, and as reported in Al-Hayat, some local officials called on Maliki to rescind the order. While opposition may have been stirred, at least directly, by the loss of authority, this report by Al-Hayat indicates that they are framing their objections in terms of objections to the federalism plan promoted strongly by SCIRI leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, who also heads the UIA. Hakim’s plan, which was included in principle in the Iraqi constitution and has been endorsed by the Grand Ayatallah Ali al-Sistani, provides for the creation of a regional authority in the Shi’a south similar to that now existing in Kurdistan, along with another in Baghdad and a fourth in the central areas of the country dominated by Sunnis. While many Sunnis have opposed this, these Shi’a critics claimed that the plan would subsume Basra into the larger Shi’a province, which would naturally be dominated by SCIRI and Maliki’s Dawa Party.

Interestingly, Al-Hayat also quoted Sahib al-‘Amaari, a leader among the Sadrists, as saying that those who favored federalization sought to control the south and “spoil the good things we have here and our link with Iran.” Sadr has come to be viewed as the Shi’a leader most closely aligned with Iran, which also has been providing support to his Mahdi Army. While some have feared that Hakim favored a federal system in order to partition Iraq, and Sunnis have complained that he sought to ensure control over southern Iraq’s oil reserves, this suggests that Hakim may be using it as a power play to outmaneuver his Shi’a rivals.