WASHINGTON — A new U.S. government report suggests that American officials may have little hope of influencing developments in Iraq's southern provinces amid growing concerns about Iranian involvement there.
The report, released Thursday by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, said that poor security prevents U.S. and coalition civilian officials from meeting with many of their Iraqi counterparts, yet Iranians can travel unmolested in the region.
The report suggests that conditions are improving in some parts of the country, notably Anbar province, which until earlier this year was the center of the Sunni insurgency. But its description of the limits experienced by coalition reconstruction teams in southern Iraq suggests difficulties for the United States in a strategic region of the country.
Much of Iraq's oil wealth is in the south, and the southern city of Basra is Iraq's only major port. In addition, withdrawing U.S. troops would need to pass through the region to reach departure points in Kuwait.
The region is dominated by Shiite Muslims, Iranian religious pilgrims are a major source of income and no large U.S. military units are present. British forces, which have been responsible for southern Iraq's security since coalition forces invaded more than four years ago, will drop to 2,500 by next spring.
Iranian influence is expanding, the report said, and Iranian money is flooding into Najaf and Karbala provinces, the home of Iraq's Shiite religious leaders.
In contrast, the report said, coalition reconstruction experts haven't visited Najaf to meet with officials there in more than a year and have managed only three visits to Karbala in the past year.
In Basra province, a British-led team of reconstruction experts abandoned its offices in the provincial capital last November after repeated rocket and mortar attacks, and coalition reconstruction teams, including members of the Army Corps of Engineers, no longer travel to Maysan province, which is now dominated by the Mahdi Army militia of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr, the report said. Overland travel is rare in other provinces, the report said.
The report is the third assessment by the special inspector general's office of the effectiveness of coalition reconstruction teams throughout Iraq, and wasn't intended to be a security assessment. The report didn't address U.S. claims that the Iranian military is training and arming Iraqi militias.
But in reviewing the activities of so-called provincial reconstruction teams, or PRTs, the report described security in southern Iraq as a major impediment and provided details on developments there that U.S. officials rarely mention.
The security situation is so bad for coalition officials, the report said, that an early draft recommended that the United States shut down its reconstruction teams for Basra, Karbala, Najaf, Qadisiyah and Maysan provinces and reassign the experts.
The report said the recommendation was dropped after the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. military objected.
The report said teams appeared to be making the most headway on reconstruction efforts in Kurdish-dominated areas of northern Iraq and in Anbar, where al Qaida in Iraq has been largely subdued by a Sunni tribal offensive.
Progress was mixed in Baghdad and Diyala provinces, where sectarian violence has been most pronounced. It noted that "every member of the PRT teams has encountered hostile direct fire" in Diyala, whose provincial capital, Baqouba, was the focus of a massive U.S. offensive during the summer. The report saw little hope of political reconciliation soon in either place.
"Despite gains by U.S. and Iraqi security forces in tamping down violence in some sections in and around Baghdad and Baquba, PRT officials are generally pessimistic that lasting political reconciliation was taking place," the report said.
The most alarming descriptions, however, were reserved for southern Iraq, which the report divided into a south-central region, which it described as "the Shia heartland," and a southeastern region, which includes Basra, a critical oil and shipping center.
In the south-central region, only the PRT assigned to Babil province felt it was making progress, the report said. The teams assigned to Najaf, Karbala and Qadisiyah "are less optimistic of their effectiveness," largely because they cannot travel freely in those provinces or meet with Iraqi officials. "The security situation is generally calm for Iraqis and Iranians, but dangerous for coalition forces and civilians," the report said.
PRT officials in the southeastern region face similar difficulties. The teams generally are free to travel in Muthana and Dhi Qar provinces, but in Maysan province officials "formally severed ties with coalition forces" after a British military operation there in early 2006. The Maysan reconstruction team "has no visibility in the reconstruction process," the report said.
In Basra, the report said, rival Shiite groups are battling for control of the province's oil resources and port, and it quoted an unclassified report from the International Crisis Group that said that Basra city is under the control of militias and criminal gangs.
Most of the coalition reconstruction team was sent to Kuwait last year, and the few members who remained in Iraq were sent to an air base outside Basra, where any meetings with local officials take place.
In a footnote, the report noted that minority groups, including Sunnis and Christians, have largely been driven from Basra city, which it described "prior to the war" as "a pluralistic, socially diverse city."
The full report is at: http://media.mcclatchydc.com/smedia/2007/10/18/10/basra-Seibel.source.prod_affiliate.91.pdf