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New British Commander Updates on Iraqi South

Last week Lieutenant General Robert Fry, Britian’s highest level officer in Iraq and Deputy Commander of Multinational Force-Iraq, gave his second Pentagon press briefing since taking command in May. Most notable were his comments on the security situation in Basra (see our August 11 report on this issue) and Iranian arms smuggling. Also of significance last week was the withdrawal of British troops from a base near Amara in the Maysan Province, on Iraq’s southeast border with Iran. This appears to have been related to a need to redeploy British troops to deal with Iranian activity, although the withdrawal did not take place without incident. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki also declared that transfer of security control in the Dhiqar Province in Iraq’s south-central region would be postponed, and both military readiness and political conditions were cited.

On August 22 Fry gave a press briefing in Arlington, Virginia in which he discussed a range of issues related to security in southern Iraq (full text of Fry’s comments). General Fry focused on Al-Muthanna, Basra and Iran, saying that Iraqi forces were maintaining security in Al-Muthanna without difficulty but that Basra was more problematic. Excerpted here are some of Fry’s comments especially germane to key security issues:

…As far as Basra itself is concerned, I think we’ve had an intervention of central government into local government. And I’m sure you’re aware that Prime Minister Maliki intervened in terms of the local security architecture, to make sure that a committee answerable directly to him would be put in place and make sure that he could have the most intimate control over what was going on in Basra…

I think I made a particular reference to Muthanna rather than Basra. Basra is an entirely separate province, and indeed the situation is different there. I think we’ve got a complex situation in Basra quite different from the situation in Baghdad and quite different from the one that we see, for example, in Anbar province.

The situation in Basra is about the competition for wealth and power, but within one concessional community, in this case, the Shi’a community, and I think we have what are essentially a political contest in particular between various factions. Now, to some extent, those factions have infiltrated not so much the Iraqi army, but some elements of the Iraqi police service. We recognize that, and we’re going to great lengths to make sure that those people who have been successful at infiltrating themselves are turfed out. And we’ve done a series of detention operations recently in order to bring about exactly that.

Now, again, I mentioned earlier on the fact that Prime Minister Maliki has intervened personally in Basra, and it was precisely to ensure that this happened, that he made that intervention. So I think that we do face problems, but we recognize precisely what those problems are, and we’re taking remedial measures to make sure that they’re properly addressed.

I think we’ve got some pretty clear evidence of the way in which the Iranians are involved in sectarian violence, and certainly we know that some of the arms coming into this country and being used in attacks against the security forces are provided by Iran. Certainly we believe that there is money and maybe even some training being involved for those involved in the use of violence inside Iraq. And on top of that, of course, you have a sustained Iranian rhetoric, both within the region as a whole but also making its views on the situation inside Iraq known very, very clearly…

A significant event this past week was the withdrawal of British forces from a base near Amara, the capital of the Maysan Province. The base, a former Baathist regime military installation, was called Camp Abu Naji, and at least some of the troops were to redeploy along the Iraq-Iran border in the area in order to stop arms smuggling from Iran to Shi’a militias. Unfortunately, the withdrawal did not go smoothly. The Karbala News Agency reported that on August 23, the day before the planned withdrawal, there was an exchange of fire in the Old Hussein neighborhood in Amara. The KNA tends to have a strong anti-Western bias, and gave no indication of an underlying cause other than to say that one individual was killed and locals reacted violently. The British military has not released a press report on the incident.

Then, following the British redeployment away from the Amara area, the abandoned base was ransacked by looters (Washington Post). The incident does not reflect well on local security, although concern for the security of the base after withdrawal does not seem to have been great. British officials responded to questions by saying that the base was now the Iraqis’ responsibility, and the Post notes that local Iraqi forces called the governor to get permission to return fire on armed looters, and apparently did not get it until the looting was almost done. The Post article also noted that there had been mortor shelling from militia elements loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, so the fight in Amara may have been related.

Regarding the situation in the south-central province of Dhiqar, which is directly west of Maysan, the Iraqi newspaper Al-Rafidayn published an article on Wednesday regarding the decision by Prime Minister Maliki to postpone transfer of security responsibility from Italian to Iraqi forces for a time. The article quotes several local figures about the reasons for the decision. Given the recent electoral victory of the left in Italy, the Italian government has decreed that its troops would leave Iraq by the end of the year. Italian forces were criticized for not being interested in the preparedness of Iraqi forces, and Maliki himself gave the lack of military preparation as the prime reason for the postponement.

Yet local officials pointed to political conflicts, and two individuals in particular were blamed. One was the Shi’a cleric Muhammad al-Hassani al-Sarkhi, whose militia elements have been interfering with local security and walking around with their weapons in defiance of the legitimate security forces. Al-Rafidayn makes mention of the recent conflict between Sarkhi’s militia and security forces in Karbala, on which we reported last week. The other figure blamed was Shirwan Al-Wa’ili, a member of the federal parliament from Dhiqar who was the first to declare that Iraqi forces would be taking over, and who was criticized for wanting to take control of the province in any federal autonomy plan, which has been advocated by Shi’a leaders.