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Notes on Where is Iraq heading? Lessons from Basra

In June 2007 the International Crisis Group released the Middle East Report No. 67, a comparison between the current situation in Baghdad and what happened in Basra under a deployment of troops there similar to the present surge in the capital.

As with the British in Basra, US policy in Baghdad centres around the idea that a political system can be formed amidst the local mix of demographics, a system which reflects American-style thinking. Backed with military force the idea is to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis while at the same time dissolving the presence of militants.

Under the Otoom framework the local conditions can be identified in a formal manner as they relate to cognitive dynamics; it does not need years of combat and billions of dollars to attain the result. The report contains observations based on the consequences of ill-informed actions, demonstrating the futility of the vision behind. Some are quoted here and commented on using Otoom's perspective.

The report is available from the International Crisis Group website.

Basra is a pluralistic, socially diverse city. [p. 1]

Introducing a brief summary of Basra's historical background, that first sentence refers to times when the city enjoyed peace and prosperity despite the presence of various religions, sects, and social levels. Since those good times are not directly related to a specific governance (eg, sultanate, theocracy, monarchy), as are its bad times, the conclusion offers itself that the type of governance per se is not the absolute determinant of a region's quality of life it is sometimes made out to be; an observation not limited to the Middle East of course.

Therefore, to "help a country achieve democracy" may not necessarily be a help, understand the country, result in democracy, nor be considered an achievement in the end.

Because society represents a complex system, the underlying reasons for peace can be as obscure as the reasons for conflict. If even the members of a demographic cannot manage to resolve disputes, the hopes of an outsider are even more misplaced. Factors such as emotion, education, general intelligence, religiosity, and the accompanying degrees of subjectivity when it comes to ascertain oneself against some other, they all contribute to an imagery acted upon by its holders. The urge to interfere in such a cauldron is not so different from the madness causing it in the first place.

To get some understanding what this means refer to the report. To fully realise the implications visit certain non-Western regions.

Local actors allege foreign involvement to disparage and discredit local opponents. The most common charge is that of being an Iranian agent - an accusation all sides cavalierly hurl at one another. Tha'r Allah denounces SCIRI and Fadhila as instruments of Iranian influence. [p. 8]

Whatever the details, this and surrounding comments indicate the degree of entanglement such demographics experience. The need for affiliation, the need to remain honourable within the confines of constantly re-interpreting dispositions, as well as the effects of an emotive piety, make it virtually impossible to achieve a stable platform on which to build societal edifices - unless they are imposed through an adequate authority.

Iraq could be on the moon, and Iraqis would still kill each other. Overestimation of the foreign influence over Iraq is evident in consideration of Iranian influence in Iraq's Shia community. ... The Shia are fighting their own civil war, with local factions fighting for local reasons. Outsiders meddle but they are peripheral to the main conflict between the factions. Though Tehran may have advantages over the Coalition in its struggle to influence Iraqis - longer engagement with Iraq's Shia and greater insight into the local culture - the Iranians, like all foreigners, swim in the same confusing sea of local factions. For them, as for anyone else, influence can only be rented, never bought. [p. 9]

The ability of a demographic to settle into a cohesive whole that supports stability and growth can first and foremost be measured by the effects its own configuration has. The multifaceted nature of human activity systems may be complex and confusing, but in the end there is some result - a function of their overall quality.

As history confirms, there are regions where conflict represents a permanent feature. The reasons can be traced down to the detail of individual thought patterns. In turn they combine to form the group, different in scale but similar in nature. Such characteristics are open to analysis with the appropriate conceptual tool set.

The Shaykhiya Shiite minority, which also was the target of brutal attacks, strived to remain neutral but was compelled to establish its own militia while simultaneously joining a non-aggression pact with the main parties. [p. 10]

Once an overriding authority goes, the subsystems take over and pursue their interests under the auspices of the general characteristics. The minority mentioned above is one of many whose members are forced to create their own protection in the absence of an overarching rule. The form of governance that eventually emerges is a function of the existing contingencies, in addition to the interference by outsiders.

Basra's political transition gave parties a dominant role in the emerging order without simultaneously compelling them to honour the rule of law that was supposed to be at the core of that order. As a result, groupings that could acquire resources did so with impunity, acting more as criminal gangs than political parties and using the electoral process to participate in a system whose founding principles they wilfully ignored. [p. 11]

What else could be expected? If a proper analysis of Iraqi society had taken place from the very beginning, such outcomes would have been obvious.

The local power apparatus is fragmented into myriad, partisan fiefdoms. [p. 11]


Parties fight most intensely over the three most valuable assets: oil trafficking, control over security forces and access to public services and resources. Evidence suggests that local parties are massively involved in oil trafficking. This is openly acknowledged by some, including a Mahdi Army fighter: "All parties, without exception, steal and smuggle oil. I mean all of them - and that includes the Sadrist current. It's true that I belong to that current, but I am being frank and honest". [p. 12]

The affinity relationships described in Otoom point to the tendency within systems to respond to the existing resources (whatever they might be) in order to support the viability of subsystems. If the result fits into a general state of synchronisation within the host system, the latter will be viable. If the actions mean dissonance in relation to the whole, the subsystems themselves become the determinants.

Such dynamics follow the rules of complex systems; not those of some ethics, morals, or the US government.

Between September 2006 and March 2007, British forces carried out Operation Sinbad which they presented as a response to the militia problem. Among the principal objectives was to fight militia infiltration of security services, improve police performance and reduce fratricidal violence. At first glance, results appeared somewhat promising. ...

At closer look, the picture is less encouraging. Some British data defies credibility. The claim that approximately 90 per cent of the city's and governorate's police stations have reached a "satisfactory" level, for example, is belied by testimony from first-hand witnesses. Most underscore the vast gap separating the army - whose performance is assessed as decent albeit imperfect - from the police, judged to be wholly inadequate. [p. 16]

The situation underscores the discrepancy between military action and civilian agenda, as well as their respective results. Both answer to separate dynamics and therefore their aims have to be kept apart. While an army can control a civilian population (provided it has the resources to do so in a comprehensive manner for any length of time), it cannot imbue the people with the impetus to take ownership of an agenda initially represented by guns and tanks. From Alexander the Great to Napoleon to the US in Vietnam the lessons should have been learnt by now.

British officials confess not to know how to tackle the problem Operation Sinbad was supposed to resolve. Sinbad was conceived as a last-ditch effort prior to a troop drawdown and, as far as one can tell, no serious thought was ever given to an alternative plan in the event of failure. A British official noted during the operation's final stages: "I don't think there is much of a Plan B should Sinbad not succeed as we hope". Instead, responsibility for coming up with an answer apparently has been delegated to Iraqis, most of whom depend on armed groups for their survival. [p. 17]

In line with the above. As soon as the implementation of the initiative was transferred to the Iraqis their own dynamics took over and, as the evidence shows, these could not be reconciled with those of the British.

As one British official said,

Badr and the Mahdi Army are the largest militias and a clash between the two presents the greatest threat of destabilising Basra. That said, both are weary of precipitating a conflict that could spiral out of control. ... Criminal activity conducted by these and other militias (such as Tha'r Allah) poses a greater threat to stability but, again, there are internal mechanisms at work that generally balance out the various forces. The result is very messy, but generally it works. [p. 17]

Exactly. It needs to be kept in mind that labels such as 'army' and 'militia' are descriptors applied from a top-down perspective, and a distant one at that. From the ground up, that is to say from the view of the respective participants, the definitions can be quite different. It is under this view that the members go through their functions.

When asked what ought to be done to restore Basra to normalcy, its residents display remarkable and surprising consensus. Above all, they demand that heads of institutions be qualified, competent and, most importantly, unaffiliated with any party. They also demand regulation of party activity and a strengthening of the judiciary - a sector that, up until now, has suffered from extraordinary neglect compared to the police and army. What they are asking for, in short, is the rule of law. [p. 18]

Indeed - a rule of law however that is capable of answering to the contingencies at the local level. Whether on a large scale in the case of the former Iraq, or on the smaller of the present fractions, it will be a law imposed by a strong-man.


Wishful thinking and political correctness in the West have largely deprived us from seeing the world as it is. Its politicians themselves have risen under a system that does not always encourage realism. Their constituents sway to the rhythm of simplistic sound bites, comfortable vanity, and Christian guilt.

None possess a realistic picture of the world out there, a place they nevertheless want to embrace. They are like youngsters running away from home to conquer the land. In fact, what comes to mind is the Children's Crusade of the 13th century, a most wondrous chapter in the annals of devout piety.

16 Jul 2007

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