The Iraqi government, with help of air cover and air strikes by coalition forces, has launched a major assault, codenamed “Galloping Horses” on Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia, otherwise known as Jeish al-Mahdi [The Army of al-Mahdi (al-Mahdi is the Shiite Messiah, a hidden savior whose re-emergence will free the world from injustice)], which has taken control over large swaths of the city of Basra and other key cities in southern Iraq. Basra is the second largest city in Iraq, astride huge oil fields, some with billions of barrels of crude oil.
The Al-Mahdi Army is only one of the militias that are jockeying for power in Basra. The others are al-Fadhila, [The Virtue], which belongs to the Shi’ite al-Fadhila party, which controls the government of the Governorate of Basra; and al-Badr, which is the enforcement arm of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) and one of the key elements of the ruling coalition.
Throughout most of recent history Basra, as a port city, was a quasi-cosmopolitan city with residents representing many cultures, and many ethnic and sectarian groups. Veiled and unveiled women mixed freely in the streets of the city unmolested and with total freedom. The militias have turned Basra into a center of oppression with women being the primary victims. Failure to wear the veil was a reason for killing the “offender”. Barbers who shave beards or give “western style” hair cuts have also been murdered as have Christian owners of liquor stores. Music has been banned at weddings, to the extent that secular people wanting to celebrate these happy occasions have gone underground.
But the struggle in the streets and neighborhoods of Basra between the government security forces and the al-Sadr’s militia is not over the soul of the city; rather, it is a struggle over who controls the smuggling of oil.
Through tapping into oil pipelines, smugglers, supported by the various militias, have been able to pilfer hundreds of millions of barrels of oil shipped through numerous militia-controlled ports on Shattt-al-Arab. The oil is smuggled to Iran, often under the protection of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, by a variety of marine vessels, including dhows (see attached picture), and often as far as Dubai. The oil is sold to middlemen at a heavily discounted price and then sold to international smugglers. The proceeds from smuggling, estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually, are used to support the militias and the variety of social programs that benefits the families of the militia members. The fact that the political parties can support tens of thousands of militia members and their families is another indication of the volume of the smuggling.
A dhow carrying cargo. Source: www.hemingways.co.ke
The militias fighting the Iraqi forces are equipped with modern weaponry, often superior to that available to Iraqi forces. Most of these weapons come from Iran, which supports the militias because they are mostly Shi’a and because it is Iran’s way of causing troubles for the United States. Besides, Iran has had a record of stirring trouble in many hot spots in the Middle East.
The outcome of fighting against the Sadr militia and others will determine how far Iraq can move toward stability, and how much control the government can establish over its most significant source of national wealth.