February’s edition of my south Iraq SIGACT monitoring and analysis includes a new feature, Video Tours of the data. Incidents have been visualised on a 3D map that can be viewed as video below. The SIGACT Map and Incident Report Pivot Table remain as before.
Monitoring parameters were as follows:
> Serious violent incidents
> Tribal fighting
> Protest activity
> Arms trafficking
> Maritime incidents
Video Tour: Incidents in February 2018
Heatmap of all incidents in February:
Map of incidents by type:
SIGACT MAP: South Iraq February 2018
Click “view large map”, top right icon, for full functionality.
PIVOT TABLE: South Iraq February 2018
February saw a dampening down across several risk categories in the south, and Basra in particular, as the Federal Government sought to impose security ahead of elections scheduled for 12 May. Nevertheless, Basra City remained the epicentre of violent incidents and was the starting point for a major security operation, launched 21 February, involving military and special forces. Overall, monitoring captured 50 incidents in February: Basra 33; Dhi Qar: 8; Maysan: 1; Muthanna: 8. Of these, tribal fighting accounted for 8; and there were 15 serious violent incidents. This was down from 12 and 23 respectively in January.
Basra Security Operation
Following battlefield successes against Islamic State (IS), and a decisive response to the Kurdish independence referendum, Prime Minister Haider al-‘Abadi has finally brought political and military resources to bear in the south. Tribal violence and general criminality have been causing chaos, particularly in Basra. The upcoming elections in May figure in these dynamics. It is fairly common practice for tribes to cause disruption in the run-up to elections as a means of extracting concessions. Nevertheless, the situation in the south, and Basra in particular, had begun to look like it was spiralling out of control, with local political leadership regularly pleading with the Federal Government to send outside military reinforcements.
These arrived in February, with the scale of the deployments indicating the level of the problems currently facing the south. The bulk of the forces deployed were from the 9th Armoured Division, normally operational around Baghdad but also providing one of the Iraqi armies best rapid response units. The 9th Division includes a number of armoured and mechanised brigades, including M1 Abrams. Video below shows the arrival of military hardware to Basra on 20 February, just prior to their deployment. These forces were supported by special forces and counter-terrorism units.
The operation in Basra began on 21 February with the encirclement and locking down of al-Qibla, a district in the south-west of Basra City. Al-Qibla has been the site of multiple security incidents in recent months. On 4 January, there was a grenade attack on a home; on 7 January men armed with Kalashnikovs carried out an armed robbery on a food store; on 26 January, there was an attempted assassination of the prison manager via an IED placed under his car; on the same day, there was another grenade attack on a home in the neighbourhood. Incidents continued into February. On 4 February, there was another IED attack on a home; and on 18 February gunmen opened fire with Kalashnikov rifles during another grocery store robbery. On 21 February, security forces carried out raids and searches in al-Qibla based on intelligence and made dozens of arrests. A similar pattern followed in other troubled locations such as al-Qurnah and Shafi, north of Basra City. In December, tribal fighting in al-Qurnah led to multiple deaths and calls from the Qaimaqam for outside military intervention. On 19 February, 2 more were killed in tribal fighting there. Shafi has also been a centre of tribal conflict with incidents in late December and January causing the Basra-Baghdad highway to be closed.
Prime Minister, Haider al-‘Abadi has sought to gain political capital from the security operation. He flew into Basra on 22 February and held a series of meetings with local political, military, security chiefs.
This is a significant deployment of military resources and seems to have succeeded in dampening down violence in Basra province, at least over the short term. However, the fact that this amount of military power had to be brought to bear to reimpose security in the south, where IS and other Sunni militant groups have little footprint, illustrates the extent to which poor security conditions in Iraq are rooted in deep-lying issues such as corruption, poor governance structures, and a general lack of resources.
The south has avoided a major terrorist attack since the September attack on the Fadak checkpoint and restaurant that killed more than 80. However, the continued aspiration and capacity of IS to carry out mass casualty attacks in the south was illustrated by a court case in Nasiriyah in February. The case dealt with an IS cell operating from Abu Kamal border town with Syria that had been preparing suicide vehicles for attacks in southern Iraq. Security forces are concerned about ungoverned spaces being exploited by IS militants. For example, on 11 February, an operation was launched to search territory between al-Fajir, on the northern border of Dhi Qar province, and al-Budayr, in southern Diwaniyah province. Similar operations are frequently undertaken between Dhi Qar and Muthanna.
Political violence linked to the upcoming elections is something that will be monitored closely in coming months. February saw the first such incident, with an attack on the home of a candidate for the Sadrist-ICP Sa’iroun lil-Islah (Going Towards Reform) coalition. Gunmen open fired on the home of ‘Abas ‘Abd al-Khader, who is a lecturer at the College of Administration and Economics at the University of Muthanna, causing material damage to his house but no casualties. The identities of the attackers have not been revealed. However, the attack was certainly political as reports linked them a “known-party” that had sent al-Khader multiple threats in recent months trying to force him to withdraw his candidacy from the election. While not a particularly serious incident, its political nature suggests that violence linked to upcoming elections is something to keep an eye on in the coming months.