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Basra Has New Sheriff In Town
Mehdi Army Now the De Facto Law in Basra
02/23/2007 1:50 PM ET
Shiite Imam Ali's historical mosque in the southern Iraqi city of Basra
Shiite Imam Ali's historical mosque in the southern Iraqi city of Basra

Der Speigel delivers the uncomfortable news that Tony Blair won't. In this Shia area, the Mehdi Army is in control. The same organization that the Americans and Iraqis are set to battle in Baghdad.

The town's police is efficient, albeit dominated by members of the Mahdi, a Shiite militia loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr. According to journalist Ghalid Khazal, 75 percent of the city's police officers follow orders from Sadr headquarters. That number is roughly the same as that mentioned by General Major Hassan Sawadi, the former police chief of Basra, one and a half years ago, when he said. "I estimate that 80 percent of the force's members do not obey my orders."

Basra is a model for what may lie ahead for the rest of Iraq. A quasi functioning, semi destroyed, half empty, half full scenario in which ultimately the Iraqis will be left to pick up the pieces.

The Shia militias were among the first after the invasion to band together via the mosques. In the early spring of 2003 they quickly sent armed men to stop looting in schools hospitals and government buildings. Portraits of Saddam were quickly replaced with hastily painted images of Sadr. The U.S. military was then sent in to forcibly remove many of these groups replacing them with U.S. appointed functionaries.

Currently Basra has much less violence per capita, the oil fields are producing at capacity (limited by destroyed and aging equipment) and although there is criminality and fighting the area has the best chance of stabilizing its government. The South may not be a model for the U.S. withdrawal but it may be a harbinger of the future if the Shia's ethnic cleansing of Sunni elements Baghdad continues.

"Abd al-Karim al Insi, the Basra representative of Shiite ruler Moqtada al-Sadr, sees the departure as affirming an adage popular among Arabs during British colonial exploits in the region 100 years ago: "Nobody knows Mecca better than the people from Mecca."

"Since the invasion, we have pushed for the occupiers to leave Iraq," al Insi said. "Nobody can protect our country better than we can. We welcome this first step in the British withdrawal. Hopefully the Americans will present a timetable soon."


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