BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's first major security initiative, a 30-day state of emergency intended to restore peace to Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, appears to have failed, residents there report.
The state of emergency ended Saturday, but residents said that little had changed: Shiite militias and tribes still control the city's streets, political factions still fight for control of the city, and Shiite Muslim militias still threaten Sunni Muslims with death. Morgue officials report that the number of people killed in sectarian violence remains unchanged.
Al-Maliki's Basra initiative had been closely watched as a sign of whether his government would prove more able than its predecessor at reigning in sectarian violence. The government's ability to assert its authority throughout Iraq is an important indicator of when the United States might be able to begin withdrawing troops.
Many believe that Iraqis won't view their government as legitimate unless it regains control of its two biggest cities, Baghdad and Basra, both of which are wracked with violence.
In an interview with McClatchy Newspapers, Jawad al-Bolani, Iraq's interior minister, who was named to the post seven days into the Basra plan, acknowledged that the initiative had not worked. But he said the state of emergency had given the government insight into what needs to be done to regain control.
"The problem of the militias is not only in Basra," Bolani said.
Basra's governor, Mohammed al-Waili, a member of the Fadhila Party, one of the groups fighting to control the city, said he believed the plan had been successful, saying that violence between Sunnis and Shiites had declined 50 percent in the past month. He said he didn't have specific numbers, however.
"We diagnosed the weak points of our plan," Waili said.
Al-Maliki announced the initiative with great fanfare on May 31, only 11 days after taking office. He traveled to Basra and met with leaders there, telling them bluntly that the violence was unacceptable. He promised an "iron fist," dispatched Iraq's 10th Army to re-establish order, and set up a committee to oversee the program.
Because travel to Basra is difficult for Western reporters, McClatchy Newspapers maintained daily contact with Basra residents, police officers and leaders throughout the monthlong state of emergency to track its progress.
Residents complained about the Basra plan almost from its inception. They said it appeared to consist of nothing more than a few checkpoints. They charged that political leaders were more interested in retaining control of the oil-rich port city than in protecting it from militia and tribal violence.
The oversight committee squabbled over what to do and never took any major action, residents and members of the committee said.
The few new checkpoints that appeared disappeared within two weeks as sectarian violence spread. On Saturday, when the plan ended, Sunni families reported new leaflets warning them to flee or face death. Some fled.
"I am wondering how this is an emergency state if militias are still moving freely in the city," Talib Rashid Ali, a Basra teacher, said 11 days after the plan began.
Other residents gave a steady chronicle of continued violence: on the emergency's fourth day, a car bomb exploded in a busy city market, killing at least 15 people.
Hours later, security forces attacked the Sunni al Arab mosque, charging that the religious site housed insurgents who were building weapons there. Hakim al-Maiahi, the head of the security committee on Basra's provincial council, told Al-Jazeera television that forces found "many weapons, ammunitions, car bombs and other bombs inside the mosque."
A major Sunni group, the Sunni Endowment, charged that the mostly Shiite police forces killed guards trying to protect the mosque. Hopes of ending sectarian violence quickly dissipated.
Soon after, a science professor from Basra University was killed in an Internet cafe. At least two other academics would be killed before the end of the state of emergency. All were Sunni.
On June 16, Sheik Youssef Yaquoub al-Hassan, a popular Sunni cleric known for hosting meetings between rival Shiite groups, despite being the secretary general of the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, was killed. With that, some residents said they no longer believed moderate politics could survive in Basra.
"If it weren't for the disagreements between the political parties and the behavior of the governor and the local government, Basra would be secure," Kathem Hassan Abood, an electrical engineer, said the following day.
Residents also reported that a handful of women were killed, a rarity. No one seemed to know why. Perhaps they wore perfume, said one resident, only half joking.
Basra was once a focal point of Iraqi intellectual life but has become a targeted city for Islamic hardliners. Many here hoped that if the security plan brought militias under control, moderate life would return.
Instead, as the World Cup games began June 9, a Shiite cleric and Fadhila party religious leader, Sheik Mohammed Saeed al-Yaqoubi, posted fliers throughout Basra that said watching the games was sinful.
"It is not logical that a ball made of leather is the reason for (man's) anger or satisfaction," the flier read. "The world is far from God almighty."
Residents said that whatever additional troops had been on Basra's streets were gone shortly after June 25, two days after a car bomb detonated near a line of people waiting for fuel. At least five people died.
Residents agreed that Basra's primary problem is that rival factions are still fighting for control and that only an agreement among them will bring calm to the city.
"The main problem in Basra is political," said Ahmed Abu al-Rashid, the head of the Badr Organization, an armed group that backs the country's largest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. "There is no understanding among Basra's leaders. The provisional council and the governor don't lead, so the security forces are not coordinating among themselves."
(A special correspondent in Basra who cannot be named for security reasons contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.