In Basra, Questions About Who's in Charge

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Steve Inskeep talks with Ray Whitaker, foreign editor of London's The Independent on Sunday. Whitaker was recently in Basra, Iraq, a Shiite stronghold in the South that is patrolled by British forces.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One of the harder places to learn about inside Iraq is a city that was supposed to be among the more stable, Basra in the southern part of the country. And, next, we're going to meet a journalist who was there earlier this month. He is Ray Whitaker, foreign editor of the British newspaper The Independent on Sunday.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. RAY WHITAKER (The Independent): Thank you.

INSKEEP: Now let me mention the reason that it's hard to learn what's going on in Basra. There are allegations of militia rule there, of a virtual theocracy being set up by Shiite Muslim leaders in that area, and, in fact, at least one journalist has been killed who looked into these groups.

Mr. WHITAKER: That's right.

INSKEEP: Have the British authorities effectively decided to allow militia leaders to run this major Iraqi city?

Mr. WHITAKER: Well, they insist that's not true. I mean, in effect, since the spate of bombings in which the militias and their members in the police are implicated, basically, British forces have withdrawn to base around Basra. I mean, they're still very active in, you know, the other three provinces that they control, but in Basra province, they're staying in base and, you know, concentrating on force protection. And so, yes. I mean, they admit very guardedly that, you know, they allowed a lot of militia to come into the police when they were first recruiting in great haste. And now it's very difficult to eradicate them.

INSKEEP: What do the Iraqi authorities there say and the militia leaders themselves?

Mr. WHITAKER: A spokesman for the UIA...

INSKEEP: What's the UIA?

Mr. WHITAKER: Sorry, that's the United Iraqi Alliance, which is...

INSKEEP: Oh, the major Shiite political party there.

Mr. WHITAKER: Major Shiite political organization. When they asked about the two main militias, which is Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army, he said, `Well, that's been pretty much disbanded as a militia. It's now a cultural organization.' And then the other one is the Badr Brigade. He said, `Well, yeah, these people fought Saddam for 35 years from Iran. Yeah, we can't just wish them out of existence,' and they will be integrated to security forces in the new administration. But apart from the fear of them, there is evidence of creating Islamization, you know, middle-class Iraqis saying, `You can't get a drink anymore in Basra,' theater directors saying, you know, they was able to put "Hamlet" on when Saddam was in power. Now, you know, women being on stage is seen as immoral, yet the theater, the arts are simply seen as being against religion.

INSKEEP: What are British officials saying about these militias, some of whom have battled British troops, as I understand?

Mr. WHITAKER: Well, that's right. They played us down a great deal. I mean, they still try and maintain a very upbeat stance, even though the force commander there said that two-thirds of their time is now spent on force protection, which leaves only one-third for reconstruction and security-sector reform, which is trying to get a handle on the police. I mean, it's fairly obvious, you know, we did get out into Basra a little bit. There's rubbish piled everywhere in the streets. You kind of think, well, you know, how can you convince anybody that you're making progress when the streets of Basra are actually filthy?

INSKEEP: Ray Whitaker is foreign editor of the British newspaper The Independent on Sunday. He spent time this month in Basra, Iraq. Thanks very much.

Mr. WHITAKER: A pleasure.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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