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ROBERT MALLEY AND PETER HARLING

A lesson in Iraqi illusion

TO IMAGINE what Baghdad will look like after the surge, there is no need to project far into the future. Instead, just turn to the recent past. Between September 2006 and March 2007, British forces conducted Operation Sinbad in Basra, Iraq's second largest city. At first, there were signs of progress: diminished violence, criminality, and overall chaos. But these turned out to be superficial and depressingly fleeting. Only a few months after the operation came to an end, old habits resurfaced. Today, political tensions once again are destabilizing the city; relentless attacks against British forces have driven them off the streets; and the southern city is under the control of militias, more powerful and less inhibited than before.

Operation Sinbad, like the surge, was premised on belief that heightened British military power would help rout out militias, provide space for local leaders to rebuild the city, and ultimately hand security over to newly vetted and more professional Iraqi security forces. It did nothing of the sort. A military strategy that failed to challenge the dominant power structure and political makeup, no matter how muscular it was, simply could not alter the underlying dynamic: A political arena dominated by parties -- those the British embraced, no less than those they fought -- engaged in a bloody competition over power and resources.

So, what happened? While British forces were struggling to suppress the violence, the parties and organizations operating on the public scene never felt the need to modify their behavio r. Militias were not defeated; they went underground or, more often, were absorbed into existing security forces. One resident after another told us they witnessed murders committed by individuals dressed in security force uniform. This, of course, with total impunity since the parties that infiltrate the security services also ensure that their own don't get punished.

For militia members, it's an easy call: By joining the security forces, they get a salary, government-paid weapons, and political cover to boot. Security services are divided along partisan lines. Fadhila -- the governor's party -- controls the Oil Protection Force, responsible for safeguarding oil wells, refineries, and pipelines; the small Hizbollah party has a strong presence in the Customs Police Force; the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council dominates the intelligence service; and the Sadrists have penetrated the local police force.

Likewise, little was done to rebuild the city. Instead, the leading parties maintained their predatory practices, scrambling to take advantage of available public resources, contracts, or jobs. Oil contraband is an open secret, acknowledged even by a fighter in Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army, who told us that "when Moqtada al-Sadr met with representatives . . . in Basra, he scratched his nose and said, ' I smell the smell of gasoline' -- his way of accusing his own representatives of smuggling oil." Fadhila siphons diesel off at the source; others drill holes into pipelines. The public sector as a whole is rife with corruption -- instance of mammoth-sized projects that have delivered virtually nothing are legion -- malfeasance and partisan hiring.

In short, Operation Sinbad, at best, froze in place the existing situation and balance of power, creating an illusory stability that concealed a brutal and collective tug-of-war-in-waiting. Once the British version of the surge ebbed, the struggle reignited.

For Baghdad, the implications are as clear as they are ominous. Basra is a microcosm of the country as a whole, in its multiple and multiplying forms of violence. In the southern city, strife generally has little to do with sectarianism or anti-occupation resistance, both of which are far more prominent in the capital or Iraq's center. Instead, it involves the systematic misuse of official institutions, political assassinations, tribal vendettas, neighbo rhood vigilantism, together with the rise of criminal mafias that increasingly are indistinguishable from political actors. This means that even should the armed opposition weaken, even should sectarian tensions abate, and even should the surge momentarily succeed, Basra's fate is likely to be replicated throughout the country on a larger, more chaotic, and more dangerous scale.

Some lessons from Basra regarding the ill-conceived war and mismanaged occupation come too late -- four years too late. But others still can be learned.

First, the answer to Iraq's horrific violence cannot be an illusory military surge that aims to bolster the existing political structure and treats the dominant political parties as partners.

Second, violence is not solely the result of Al Qaeda-type terrorism or sectarian hostility, however costly both evidently are.

Third, as Basra shows, violence has become a routine means of social interaction used by political actors doubling up as militiamen who seek to increase their share of power and resources. In other words, perpetuating the same political process with the same political actors will ensure that what is left of the Iraqi state gradually is torn apart. The most likely outcome will be the country's untidy break-up into fiefdoms, superficially held together by the presence of coalition forces. Washington and London should acknowledge that their so-called Iraqi partners, far from building a new state, are tirelessly working to tear it down.

Iraq is in the midst of a civil war. But before and beyond that, Iraq has become a failed state -- a country whose institutions and, with them, any semblance of national cohesion, have been obliterated. That is what has made the violence -- all the violence: sectarian, anti coalition, political, criminal, and otherwise -- both possible and, for many, necessary. Resolving the confrontation between Sunni Arabs, Shi'ites, and Kurds is one priority. But rebuilding a functioning and legitimate state is another -- no less urgent, no less important, and no less daunting.

Robert Malley is Middle East program director and Peter Harling a Damascus-based senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.

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