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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Iraqi government faced with mounting lawlessness in Basra.

Since 2003, when the southern Iraqi city of Basra celebrated the fall of Saddam Hussein, it has always followed a direction uniquely its own.  Although the city has a distinct Shi'a majority, and the various militias make their presence apparent, Basra refuses to follow anyone's "party line", so to speak.  In 2007, following the departure of British forces, organized crime and the Shi'a militias became entrenched in Basra.  Given its strategic location as a entrepot of sorts,  a great deal of goods and merchandise transit Basra, especially in the form of imports and exports.  This type of traffic lends itself to all sorts of graft, which is how Basra became the organized crime center of Iraq.  In 2008, coalition and government forces launched a major operation in Basra, and successfully restored state-control, but since that time, the same players have returned and discreetly picked up right where they left off.  The Iraqi authorities have few options, as military operations elsewhere in Iraq have pulled troops normally posted to the Basra Governorate.  The police do what they can, but everyone is basically just trying to stay alive.  To stir the pot even more, Basra has been the scene of some of the larger anti-corruption demonstrations in the last year, and kidnappings for ransom have become a real problem.  To sum it up, there's a lot going on here!

As Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi doggedly sticks to his reform agenda, he faces the daily threat of Iraq breaking up under his administration.  Since the fall of Saddam, the Iraqi people rarely miss an opportunity to gather and demonstrate.  Lately, Baghdad itself has become the location for the largest of the protests, although Basra continues to hold the crown for duration.  No matter what else is happening in Iraq, chances are there will be a demonstration in Basra.  Al-Abadi has been impressive in his determination to follow through on promised reforms, and also in his support for the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), who have methodically bottled up Ramadi, and are beginning to re-occupy the city, one neighborhood at a time.  But sometimes it seems as if Abadi and the entire governing structure of Iraq are hanging by a shoestring. For all practical purposes, the Kurdistan Parliament and the PUK/KDP govern northern Iraq, central Iraq is under siege by ISIS, and everything south of Baghdad appears to be under the influence of Shi'a militia or another, depending on where you are at the time.  Abadi, his Cabinet, and the Parliament sit in Baghdad, debating reforms that hopefully will help to keep Iraq from becoming even more regionalized.  At the moment, the Iraqi people and the political forces that matter are standing behind Abadi, and he shows no indication of slowing down.  But the outbreak of lawlessness in Basra must be treated as a national security issue; Basra is too important strategically and economically to not address the problem immediately, even if it requires pulling some troops from the Anbar operation.  The cities of Basra and Umm Qasr are non-replaceable pieces of the Iraqi economic lifeline, and will only grow in importance as the country moves away from war and diversifies.  It is possible that Abadi can co-opt one or two of the larger, more traditionally stable militias, and use them to help get the situation under control.  However its done, this problem won't go away without movement from Baghdad and the ISF. 

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