As British troops completed their pullout on 3 September from Saddan Hussein’s former palace in Basra - their last remaining base in the southern city - to Basra airport, local aid agencies and residents have expressed concern that security could deteriorate.
“Basra is still in a very delicate security situation,” said Barak Hussein, media officer for the locally-based South Peace Organisation (SPO). “They are leaving the city in the hands of local security forces but these are not prepared to assume all responsibilities, especially with so many different militias in the area.” According to Iraqi military sources, British troops at the palace have been facing up to 60 mortar attacks a day.
“We have raised grave concerns… at least in Basra British troops were maintaining some sort of control which wasn’t the case in other parts of Iraq, but now we might see the same cycle of violence [as elsewhere],” Hussein said.
Mayada Zuhair, a spokesperson of the Basra branch of the Women’s Rights Association, a Baghdad-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), said without British troops in the area, there would be an increase in violence with local militias vying for power.
“They [the militias]… will now be free to take action and impose their laws and this could be very serious,” she said. “Our organisation, which defends women’s rights, has faced constant threats [from the militias], and now for sure we will have to prepare to shut up shop at any moment.”
Civil war fears
Professor Khalid Abbas from Basra University said the withdrawal of British troops from the palace might ignite a local civil war.
“Basra could turn, at any time, into another Karbala or Najaf, which are already in turmoil. Rival Shia militias will start to fight each other and could destroy what peace remains in Basra,” Abbas said.
According to the authorities, Basra airport will now be the only base for the 5,500 British soldiers still serving in southern Iraq. With their palace base now handed over to the Iraqis, the government is expected to announce that the British presence in Iraq will be reduced by 500 within the next few weeks.
A member of a local militia who refused to be named, said the withdrawal of British troops from Basra was a victory and now they [the militias] were going to be able to govern their city without foreign interference: “We won and now we can live under strict religious laws,” the militia member said.
Locals are fearful and have called on the government to increase security in Basra.
“The government should now take over security in Basra and guarantee that the army and police are neutral and do not back a local militia,” Dr Haydar Hassan, 46, a medical doctor and Basra resident, said.
“I have heard that many Shia militias are already carving up Basra into areas of control. This could be really dangerous as the city will lose its security equilibrium,” Hassan said. “They [militias] have assumed victory and will turn our lives into an extremist religious society.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions