Sunday, May 20, 2007

Basra Writ Large?

Although currently based in Lebanon, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad (our man G.) has made a trip down to Basra to report on what's happening on the ground in Iraq's second-largest city. According to Ghaith, there are four separate groups jockeying for power in Basra: 1) the Madhi militia, about half of which are loyal to Muqtada Al-Sadr, 2) the Fadhila militia, who are opposed to Iranian influence in Basra, 3) the Badr Brigade, the armed militia of SCIRI, which had been exiled in Iran for the twenty years before Saddam's fall, and 4) around twenty or so different tribes, each one vying for a piece of the pie. These groups, and not the Iraqi police or Iraqi Army or even the British army, are the real players in Basra:
The people who really control Basra are men such as Sayed Youssif. He is a mid-level militia commander, but his name and that of his militia - God's Revenge - strikes fear anywhere in Basra.

Beginning with a small group of gunmen occupying a small public building, the former religious student built up a reputation as a fearless thug, killing former Ba'athists, alcohol sellers and eventually freelancing as a hitman for anyone willing to pay the price.
Four years ago I might have been surprised by this complex picture of Basra, but I have now come to see, with the help of lots of background reading and many exchanges with Iraqi bloggers and commenters, that exactly this type of shifting power struggles between disparate groups is actually the norm for much of Iraqi history.

Saddam Hussein, just the latest in a fairly long list, was one of the more ruthless bastards given birth to by an Iraqi woman. He grew to be a man who knew instinctively the cut-throat style required to control this fractious population. And he killed hundreds of thousands to keep everyone in check and to ensure that the fear he engendered spread not only throughout the length and breadth of the land between the two rivers but into the very nightmares of Iraqis as they slept.

While I still have hope that something like a representative type of government can be created in Iraq, it will, when the dust settles, be a system that will have to conform to the dynamics of the current power struggles that have been going on in Iraq for at least the last several thousand years.

Meanwhile, in an e-mail to Instapundit from Anbar province, Michael Yon writes:
Today, went on a patrol with Iraqis and a couple of Marines and we talked with Iraqi villagers for a couple of hours. I got to talk with a man who was about 81. His hearing was not good, so I had to sit close. He said he worked for the British RAF here in about 1945-46. I asked him if the British treated him well and he said they treated him very well. Said he made the equivalent of about 25 cents per day but that was good money back then. There is, in fact, a British-Polish-Indian-Aussie-Kiwi cemetery nearby. (I visited and photographed many of the headstones some days ago.)

All the villagers we got to talk with were very friendly. Kids wanted their photos taken, that sort of thing. They were not asking for candy and that was nice. There was a train track nearby (looked to be in very good condition), and a locomotive turned over on its side, derailed. I asked a man what happened, and he said that about four years ago, during the war, an "Ali Baba" (thief) tried to steal the train but ran head-on into another train! He said the police caught the Ali Baba and he has no idea what happened after that.

Marines are getting along well with the locals. They wave a lot, and stop to talk. If the rest of Iraq looked like this, we could all come home!
Michael Yon is a fine reporter and has been all over Iraq, so I'm going to have to trust him on this. Still, as you can see, one's perspective on Iraq ultimately depends on exactly where and at what time that you happen to be standing somewhere. It could also change in an instant.

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I've just come across an Iraqi blogger -- new for me, at least, because I see that she's been blogging since last year -- named Chikitita. In this blog entry, she remembers back to April 9, 2003:
Not too long ago, I was barraged with questions of how it felt to witness the fourth invasion anniversary. I usually greet dates to be marked and fanfare studded anniversaries with indifference - it is the event that counts not when it occurred. I kept racking my brain and fumbling for answers until it dawned on me that on April 9, 2003, I did not know it was April 9. I had no calendar at the time. Besides, I was more drawn into buying the reports of former Minister of Culture and Media than the BBC, Radio Monte Carlo or Radio Sawa’s, which means I did not believe Iraq was officially occupied until I saw US Marines walking past my house to corroborate what I had heard through the grapevine. More importantly, all my life I have been bracing myself to the prophecies that all Iraqis would eventually die of cancer, depression, rage, smart and stupid bombs, torture chambers, fear, helplessness, depleted uranium, poverty, anemia, wailing sirens, to name but a few and Saddam would be the last to leave this world. I have always had this mental picture of a pile of dust and rubble with him on top, inspired by the eternal words that were ascribed to his Excellency “I won’t step down until I reduce Iraq to a pile of dust.”
She writes very well and is another fine Iraqi voice writing in English in the Iraqi blogosphere.
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