BASRA, Iraq—Southern Iraq, long touted as a peaceful region that's likely to be among the first areas returned to Iraqi control, is now dominated by Shiite Muslim warlords and militiamen who are laying the groundwork for an Islamic fundamentalist government, say senior British and Iraqi officials in the area.
The militias appear to be supported by Iranian intelligence or military units that are shipping weapons to the militias in Iraq and providing training for them in Iran.
Some British officials believe the Iranians want to hasten the withdrawal of U.S.-backed coalition forces to pave the way for Iran-friendly clerical rule.
Iranian influence is evident throughout the area. In one government office, an aide approached a Knight Ridder reporter and, mistaking him for an Iranian, said, "Don't be afraid to speak Farsi in Basra. We are a branch of Iran."
"We get an idea that (military training) courses are being run" in Iran, said Lt. Col. David Labouchere, who commands British units in the province of Maysan, north of Basra. "People are training on the other side of the border and then coming back."
British military officials suspect that the missile that was used to shoot down a British helicopter over Basra on May 6 came from Iran. Five British soldiers died.
"We had intelligence suggesting five surface-to-air missile systems being brought over from Iran only seven days before it went down," said Maj. Rob Yuill, a British officer based in Basra.
Yuill said that the information suggested that the missiles were destined for the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Bassem al-Samir, a senior official in the Sadr office in Basra, denied that his organization was involved in the helicopter attack.
Another Sadr official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from other Sadrists, said that while the Mahdi Army wasn't responsible, "the missile was shot by an Iranian-trained group."
American military officials in Baghdad often point to the relatively low number of attacks against British soldiers in southern Iraq as proof that much of the country is stable.
Last month, however, at least 200 people were killed in Basra, almost all of them by militia violence, according to an Iraqi Defense Ministry official there.
A week with British troops in Maysan and Basra provinces and three additional days of reporting in the city of Basra made it clear that Iraqis here are at the mercy of Shiite militia death squads and Iran-friendly clerics who have imposed an ever-stricter code of de facto Islamic law.
The city of Basra has largely come under the control of Shiite clerics, who have banned alcohol sales. A woman without a headscarf is a rare sight. Record shops have been replaced with stores selling Quranic recordings. It's difficult to purchase chess or backgammon sets; the games are frowned upon by hard-line clerics.
Iraq's top Shiites acknowledge that they want to set up a regional government in the south, but they insist that the provinces involved would remain loyal to the central government in Baghdad. But an Iran-friendly Shiite government in the south could have far-reaching effects on Iraq and the Persian Gulf region and on the strategic position of U.S. military forces in the country.
U.S. forces are dependent on a fragile re-supply line that runs from Kuwait north to Baghdad through southern Iraq. A regional government allied with Iran could pose a risk to that supply line.
Such a government also would further agitate Iraq's Sunni and Kurdish minorities, which could fragment the country, a development that Western analysts fear would destabilize the region.
A Shiite regional government might also greatly enhance Iran's regional influence by giving it a strategic Shiite partner with vast amounts of oil in a Middle East dominated by Sunni-run countries. Neighboring Kuwait's population is about one-third Shiite, and Bahrain and Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province are majority Shiite.
Already, there are signs that neighboring Sunni countries are pumping resources to small Sunni factions in Basra to combat Iranian influence, said a senior Iraqi Ministry of Defense official in Basra. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared for his life.
"Saudi Arabia is trying to counter the rising power of Iran in Basra by giving money and weapons to fanatical Sunni groups operating there," the official said.
In much the same way that Kurdish leaders and militia units in the north have made control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk a top priority for their region, Shiites have identified Basra as the economic engine of Iraq's Shiite south. Basra is near Iraq's largest oil fields, with billions of dollars in proven reserves, and is home to the only shipping port in Iraq.
While there are many signs that Iran is backing the Shiite push for control of Basra, it's not clear to what extent the Iranian government is formally involved, said Brig. Gen. James Everard, who commands the British brigade in Basra.
"Do we see weapons technology that has Iranian hallmarks on it? Yes, we do," he said. "Is it freelance work by Iranians or is it official policy? I don't know."
Some British officers also believe that Iran is working through Iraq's Shiite-dominated central government.
Earlier this month, Iraq's Interior Ministry sent a letter ordering Basra's police chief to hire or promote 50 men with direct ties to one of Iraq's largest Shiite militias, the Badr Organization, according to Yuill, who said he'd reviewed the document.
The letter was signed by Bayan Jabr, the then-interior minister, who has deep ties to Badr. The Iranian-backed Badr Organization is the armed wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the most powerful Shiite political parties in the country.
Yuill said that Jabr had on several occasions in the past year directed the police chief to stack the ranks of the police with Badr recruits. Jabr was recently named finance minister. A new interior minister has yet to be named.
"My gut feeling is he (Jabr) was trying to improve the Iranian power base, probably with the hope of creating a separate, almost Iranian state in Iraq," Yuill said. "A lot of the people I've talked to in the chain of (Iraqi police) command with militia links are known to have ties to Iranian intelligence."
British officials accuse Iraqi politicians in Basra of using those police as death squads. A British Ministry of Defense political adviser said that the provincial governor uses officers from the police criminal investigations unit as hit men to gun down those who oppose him.
"They're his thugs; they enforce his power," said Al Pennycock, the adviser at the British Army brigade headquarters in Basra. "There are a number of individuals in the police who have been linked to assassinations, to killings, to extortions. It's hard to link it to one overlord, but the governor has very clear links to these elements."
Yuill accused the governor of paying members of the Mahdi Army and Badr, the two major Shiite militias operating here, to carry out killings to support his oil smuggling operations.
The governor declined a Knight Ridder interview request.
British commanders charged with securing far southern Iraq say they hope that the political process will soften the militias. The militias' route could be similar to that of the Irish Republican Army, which many of the British commanders fought against in Northern Ireland.
"At the moment we're just watching the dogfight. The Iraqis are competing for power, and as the local (U.S.-led coalition) commander, I'm very reluctant to interfere," Everard said.
Everard emphasized that his men wouldn't allow bloodshed to engulf the city, but he said that he has little choice but to accept the militias.
"I think there's a perception . . . sometimes that the people of Basra and the militias are separate," Everard said. "Actually, the people of Basra and the militia are the same thing."
Labouchere used similar logic in explaining why he didn't send troops to crack down on militia members in the town of Majar al Kabir, north of Basra, after suspected militiamen from there fired 44 mortar and rocket rounds at his base this month.
"I look at them and say, `Shall I go and clean it up?' And I think I'm just going to piss them off and drive them away from democracy," Labouchere said. "Will I have done good for the people of al Majar? Probably not. I will have just radicalized them."
The fight for control, and the unrest that comes with it, extends well beyond Basra.
In Amarah, a city of 400,000 to the north of Basra, the police are heavily controlled by the Badr Organization, said Maj. Charlie Howard-Higgins, who works with Iraqi security forces in the area.
The Mahdi Army is also a major factor.
The governor of Maysan province is a former Mahdi Army company commander and the provincial council is controlled by politicians loyal to Sadr, said Labouchere, who commands British units in that province.
"If they don't get people to vote the way they want, it's a good possibility you will end up with a bullet in your head or a bomb on a door," Labouchere said. "It's the way things are."
Furat al Shara, the head of the Supreme Council's Basra office, said the way toward peace in southern Iraq is simple: Accept that there will be an Islamist government that will fall short of Iranian theocracy but will be nothing like Western-style democracy.
U.S. and British officials "need to understand that the majority of Iraqi people believe in Islam," al Shara said. "We do not want a secular government."
Al Shara added: "Standing against this current will only cause them problems."
Outside his office, more than a dozen men sat on sofas, with AK-47 rifles piled against the wall next to them.
Two days earlier, a British patrol had driven up to a police station in southern Basra to try to persuade the police there to go on a joint patrol. The police refused.
Standing outside the station, in the heat of the day, Cpl. Patrick Owens shrugged his shoulders.
"It's hard to know who the militia is; it's hard to tell between them and the local police force," Owens said. "The only thing that I've seen get any better here is the weapons they're using against us."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-SOUTH
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060526 USIRAQ SOUTH