Iraq: Sadr-Badr struggle for the south

Remember back in March when the Brits pulled out of southern Iraq, citing “progress“? Looks like the only thing which has “progressed” is a violent internecine Shi’ite struggle for political control. From the LAT, Aug. 21 (links and emphasis added):

BAGHDAD – A roadside bomb killed the governor of Muthanna province yesterday, and armed men in a fleet of sport utility vehicles kidnapped a senior government minister on a busy Baghdad street.

The attack on the governor, the second provincial leader to be slain in little more than a week, came amid continued fighting between Shia Muslim groups competing for dominance in southern Iraq.

The bomb that killed Mohammed Ali al-Hassani, his driver and a bodyguard struck only the Muthanna governor’s armored Land Cruiser in a long motorcade traveling toward the provincial capital of Samawah, precision that suggested a remote-controlled device was used to target the politician of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council.

Khalil Jalil Hamza, who was the governor of neighboring Qadasiyah province and a fellow supreme council member, was killed in a similar fashion Aug. 11, stirring suspicions both bombings were carried out by militiamen loyal to radical anti-U.S. Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Al-Sadr’s Al Mahdi Army and the supreme council’s armed Badr Militia have been battling for control of Iraq’s oil-rich southern provinces as local elections set for 2008 approach.

The twin hits against the governors reflect the struggle for power and riches plaguing Iraq and its potential to nullify any security improvements achieved by U.S. and Iraqi forces.

Sunni Arab extremists were suspected in the afternoon kidnapping in Baghdad of Samir Salim Attar, the deputy minister for science and technology. He and five bodyguards were taken by armed men who used at least eight SUVs to intercept his heavily defended convoy.

A week ago, five senior officials of the Oil Ministry were kidnapped by dozens of gunmen posing as security troops. Abductions by Sunni and Shia adversaries often end in execution of the hostages rather than negotiations for their release.

Yesterday’s violence promised to engender more. Al-Hassani’s son, Ahmed, blamed Sadr’s militia and vowed to take revenge, as did a leader from the slain governor’s Bu Hassan tribe.

The assassinations and kidnappings have coincided with a burst of attacks in Baghdad and central Iraq that have killed dozens of civilians in recent days. Yesterday, five people died in a car bombing in the capital’s Sadr City neighborhood. A motorcycle bomb killed two Iraqis at central Baghdad’s Shorja Market.

A roadside bomb exploded when an Iraqi army patrol passed in Mafraq, near Samarra, killing four soldiers and provoking retaliatory gunfire that killed four civilians nearby. In Ad Dawr, a Sunni city near Samarra, four carloads of gunmen attacked the head of the tribal defense force, killing two guards.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in Damascus for a three-day meeting with Syrian leaders, hailed al-Hassani as a martyr but urged his supporters to refrain from retaliation.

See our last posts on Iraq and the Shi’ite civil war.

  1. Brits “lost” southern Iraq
    From the Financial Times, Aug. 20:

    Officially, the British government says its approach continues to be that of handing over responsibility to Iraqi security forces as they become ready. Troops are still training members of the Iraqi army’s 10th division and other forces, contributing to the protection of supply lines from Kuwait to Baghdad and elsewhere and carrying out targeted security operations, often in support of Iraqi forces, the Ministry of Defence says. But while the government’s public statements give the impression of a job done, the reality of what UK troops are preparing to leave behind is different.

    A report from the International Crisis Group, a non-government group working to prevent conflict, said in June that “relentless attacks against British forces in effect [have] driven them off the streets and into increasingly secluded compounds”. It went on: “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.”

    That point was driven home on Monday as Muhammad Ali al Hassani, governor of Muthanna province, next to Basra, was killed by a roadside bomb, becoming the second southern provincial governor to be assassinated in two weeks. British forces handed over Muthanna to Iraqi control in July 2006. Now hunkered down in defensive positions in Basra, they have lost the ability to reverse the downward spiral in the south.

    Anthony Cordesman, a specialist on the Middle East and military affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote in a report on February: “The British decisively lost the south – which produces over 90 per cent of government revenues and 70 per cent of Iraq’s proven oil reserves – more than two years ago.”