Flashback: Steven Vincent on the disintegration of Basra in 2005

Judith Weiss of Kesher Talk saw my post yesterday about Shiite militias overrunning the south and e-mailed to remind me of this piece, published in the New York Times on July 31, 2005, by art critic turned war reporter Steven Vincent. Two days after the article appeared, Vincent was kidnapped by men in a police car; his body turned up hours later by the side of the highway, full of bullet holes.

He was way ahead of the curve on Basra’s problems — so much so, in fact, that it’s been speculated he was killed to stop him from writing any more stories like this. Note in particular what he says about the British go-along-to-get-along policy. Maybe the most trenchant criticism of the war is that it was done on the cheap. The attitude he describes here is part of that.

[S]ecurity sector reform is failing the very people it is intended to serve: average Iraqis who simply want to go about their lives. As has been widely reported of late, Basran politics (and everyday life) is increasingly coming under the control of Shiite religious groups, from the relatively mainstream Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq to the bellicose followers of the rebel cleric Moktada al-Sadr. Recruited from the same population of undereducated, underemployed men who swell these organizations’ ranks, many of Basra’s rank-and-file police officers maintain dual loyalties to mosque and state.

In May, the city’s police chief told a British newspaper that half of his 7,000-man force was affiliated with religious parties. This may have been an optimistic estimate: One young Iraqi officer told me that “75 percent of the policemen I know are with Moktada al-Sadr – he is a great man.” And unfortunately, the British seem unable or unwilling to do anything about it.

The fact that the British are in effect strengthening the hand of Shiite organizations is not lost on Basra’s residents…

Fearing to appear like colonial occupiers, [the British] avoid any hint of ideological indoctrination. In my time with them, not once did I see an instructor explain such basics of democracy as the politically neutral role of the police in a civil society. Nor did I see anyone question the alarming number of religious posters on the walls of Basran police stations. When I asked British troops if the security sector reform strategy included measures to encourage cadets to identify with the national government rather than their neighborhood mosque, I received polite shrugs: not our job, mate.

He goes on to describe a “death car” seen around the city and filled with off-duty Iraqi cops paid to carry out hits on former Baathists and political opponents. That was the state of things nearly two full years ago. And now the Brits are likely on their way out.

Since we’re talking about Shiite religious parties and their militias, here’s some tangential but potentially earthshaking news: Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the party formerly known as SCIRI, has been diagnosed with lung cancer and is headed to Iran for chemotherapy. No word on what the prognosis is or who’s likely to replace him; needless to say, a more ambitious, bellicose party leader could make things boil over with Sadr and/or change the equation of Iranian influence inside the country. The second highest profile SCIRI leader is Iraqi VP Adel Abdel Mahdi, who’s almost become prime minister — twice — and may well succeed Maliki if/when his government finally crumbles. (He’s the guy on the left in the frontpage thumbnail; Hakim is on the right.) Whether he’d succeed to the leadership of SCIRI is questionable, though, given that he’s not a cleric. Anyway, something to watch.