06/26/2007 11:44 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Calamitous View Of Iraq's Future -- From Basra

While everyone is focusing on the U.S. led surge in Baghdad, Iraq's second largest city Basra--a city that the British army were supposed to be pacifying -- has been going down the tubes. That may well be the fate of Baghdad and much of the rest of Iraq as well, warns a report just issued by the International Crisis Group. It's a report that should be must reading for anyone attempting to decipher where Iraq is heading.

Basra is Iraq's economic capital, its major port; it sits astride vital supply routes for the country, and is located in Iraq's most oil rich region. In other words, what happens in that city is crucial.

Between September 2006 and March 2007 carried out a "Operation Sinbad," which was similar to Baghdad's current surge. The British called it "clear, hold and civil reconstruction"- the idea being to turn over control to Iraqi military and police. According to the report, as the British continue to draw down their forces in Basra, the plan has failed miserably. Some excerpts follow--but I suggest anyone really interested in the subject, read the full report.

"In Basra, the British appear to have given up on the idea of establishing a functioning state, ..... Four years after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, they are facing increasingly frequent and bloody attacks, and it is hard to imagine them remaining for long. Indeed, even were the coalition to re-engage in Basra, it already may well be too late to salvage the situation by creating a functional state. Over time, local government in the south could well resemble a small failed state; the government might collapse, a victim of the ruthless struggle between unregulated and uninhibited militias."

"At first glance the plan was rated a qualified success, sounding very much like the current surge around Baghdad. "...Operation Sinbad sought to rout out militias and hand security over to newly vetted and stronger Iraqi security forces while kick-starting economic reconstruction. Criminality, political assassinations and sectarian killings, all of which were rampant in 2006, receded somewhat and - certainly as compared to elsewhere in the country - a relative calm prevailed.

Yet this reality was both superficial and fleeting. By March-April 2007, renewed political tensions once more threatened to destabilise the city, and relentless attacks against British forces in effect had driven them off the streets into increasingly secluded compounds. Basra's residents and militiamen view this not as an orderly withdrawal but rather as an ignominious defeat. Today, the city is controlled by militias, seemingly more powerful and unconstrained than before."

"Basra's political arena remains in the hands of actors engaged in bloody competition for resources, undermining what is left of governorate institutions and coercively enforcing their rule. The local population has no choice but to seek protection from one of the dominant camps. Periods of stability do not reflect greater governing authority so much as they do a momentary - and fragile - balance of interests or of terror between rival militias. Inevitably, conflicts re-emerge and even apparently minor incidents can set off a cycle of retaliatory violence."

"Basra is a case study of Iraq's multiple and multiplying forms of violence. These often have little to do with sectarianism or anti-occupation resistance. Instead, they involve the systematic misuse of official institutions, political assassinations, tribal vendettas, neighbourhood vigilantism and enforcement of social mores, together with the rise of criminal mafias that increasingly intermingle with political actors. Should other causes of strife - sectarian violence and the fight against coalition forces - recede, the concern must still be that Basra's fate will be replicated throughout the country on a larger, more chaotic and more dangerous scale."

"The lessons are clear. Iraq's violence is multifaceted, and sectarianism is only one of its sources. It follows that the country's division along supposedly inherent and homogenous confessional and ethnic lines is not an answer. It follows, too, that rebuilding the state, tackling militias and imposing the rule of law cannot be done without confronting the parties that currently dominate the political process and forging a new and far more inclusive political compact."

"Iraq is in the midst of a civil war. But before and beyond that, Iraq has become a failed state - a country whose institutions and, with them, any semblance of national cohesion, have been obliterated. That is what has made the violence - all the violence: sectarian, anti-coalition, political, criminal and otherwise - both possible and, for many, necessary. Resolving the confrontation between Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds is one priority. But rebuilding a functioning and legitimate state is another - no less urgent, no less important and no less daunting."

"As the U.S. considers plans for Baghdad and other parts of the country, the lessons are clear. First, the answer to Iraq's horrific violence cannot be an illusory military surge that aims to bolster the existing political structure and treats the dominant political parties as partners. Secondly, violence is not solely the result of al-Qaeda-type terrorism or sectarian hostility, however costly both evidently are. Thirdly, as Basra clearly shows, violence has become a routine means of social interaction utilised by political actors doubling as militiamen who seek to increase their share of power and resources."

"Basra teaches that as soon as the military surge ends and coalition forces diminish, competition between rival factions itself will surge. In other words, prolonging the same political process with the same political actors will ensure that what is left of the Iraqi state gradually is torn apart. The most likely outcome will be the country's untidy break-up into myriad fiefdoms, superficially held together by the presence of coalition forces. The priority, as Crisis Group outlined in an earlier report, is to confront the power structure established in the wake of the 2003 invasion, as well as the parties that now dominate it, by insisting on genuine political compromises and a more inclusive system. It is high time that Washington and London acknowledge that their so-called Iraqi partners, far from building a new state, are tirelessly working to tear it down."