Five years ago, as other coalition forces raced toward Baghdad, British soldiers encountered unexpected resistance in the southern city of Basra.
The so-called Battle of Basra surprised many Westerners. After all, the city's population consists almost entirely of poor Shiites who had been brutally repressed by Saddam Hussein and who were supposed to cheer on his enemies.
The British finally got the place under control. But their struggles and ultimate withdrawal in September foreshadowed the Battle of Basra Part II — waged last week among rival Shiite factions fighting for control of both a key city and the entire country.
"Basra has always been a difficult place,'' says Gareth Stansfield, an expert on Iraq at London's Chatham House. "The British found it exceptionally hard to impose their authority on Basra, which is why they largely left the militias and different groups to themselves and called it a success.''
At the mouth of a river separating Iraq and Iran, Basra is Iraq's only port. It is home to Iraq's richest oil fields and main refinery. With the Sunnis gone from power, the region's oil and strategic location make it a prize for competing Shiite parties.
Foremost are the Sadrists, loyal to the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. His traditional base is farther north in Baghdad and the holy city of Najaf, both of which had seen heavy battles between U.S. forces and Sadr's Mahdi Army until he declared a cease-fire in August.
As Sadrists expand into Basra, they have clashed with militias backed by another Shiite party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, in a power struggle that has threatened the central government's already shaky hold on southern Iraq. Last week, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sent in the Iraqi army, touching off days of fierce block-by-block fighting vividly described by an Iraqi reporter for the New York Times:
"Gunbattles broke out unpredictably, so I ran or walked when it was quiet, then dropped down and sought cover when I could hear shooting,'' wrote Qais Mizher. "The common observation was this: There was nowhere the Mahdi Army either did not control or could not strike at will.''
The fighting ended Sunday only after Sadr declared another cease-fire and pulled his men off the streets. It was a shrewd move that kept the central government from calling in U.S. military support — which could have heavily damaged the Mahdi Army — and gives Sadr more time to consolidate his political gains and neutralize rivals before important provincial elections scheduled for October.
"Al-Sadr again stood up to the Iraqi government and hasn't been defeated,'' Stansfield says. "Prime Minister Maliki has to accept that the Sadrists have won and will do very well in October. Or he has to go very hard against them. It potentially will be a very long, nasty summer in the south and in Baghdad.''
To some extent, the fight for Basra has aligned Maliki, who belongs to the moderate Shiite Dawa Party, with the Supreme Council, since both are seen as friendly to the United States. But in its hard-line religious views and regressive attitudes toward women, the Supreme Council is much more similar to the Sadrists. Both the Supreme Council and the Sadrists also have ties to Iran, which could cause trouble for the United States if either does well in the October elections.
"Ultimately the Iranians are involved with both groups,'' Stansfield says. "The Supreme Council was established in Iran and now al-Sadr is going to be trained in Iran to be an ayatollah.''
The new Battle of Basra reflects another uncomfortable reality: To a large degree, Sadr controls the level of violence in Iraq's two biggest cities. By some estimates, his August cease-fire has been more important than President Bush's "surge'' in tamping down violence in Baghdad.
"The surge is just meaningless, and we can see fully how fragile this sort of semblance of peace is at present,'' Stansfield says.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday that the recent violence will not force the United States to delay its troop withdrawals this spring. But American forces could increasingly be drawn into three distinct conflicts in coming months: a territorial one between Kurds and Arabs over control of the northern oil fields; an intra-Shiite conflict among Shiite parties; and, perhaps most critically, a renewal of fighting between Shiites and Sunnis.
The Sunnis have recently cooperated with U.S. forces against al-Qaida. But they remain bitter about losing power to the Shiites after Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime fell five years ago.
If the United States were to pull out, the threat of civil war could again become very real.
"What the U.S. has done is set up two armed camps in Iraq and kept them both … satisfied,'' Stansfield says. "But as soon as you remove the U.S., these groups fall onto one another.''
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at [email protected]