The following commentary originally appeared in Musings On Iraq
This week the United States turned over control of the southern province of Babil to Iraqi control. It was the 12th of 18 provinces to be handed to the Iraqis. Although Babil is 95% Shiite, because it borders Baghdad to the north and Anbar to the west, Sunni insurgents have been active there. In 2007, the U.S. began organizing tribes into the Sons of Iraq (SOI) there to counter the militants. Babil has also been the scene of political feuds between the Sadrists, Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, and Dawa party. Its proximity to the capitol also made it one of the major supply routes for Iranian weapons into Baghdad. Because of this volatile mix, security in the province is still uneven. Despite this, in the summer the U.S. designated Babil to be the next province to be handed over to the Iraqis.
Babil is a rather small, agricultural province in central Iraq. It has a population of 1,444,400 people, 95% of which are Shiite. The remaining 5% are Sunni. The economy is based upon farming, which is the largest employer in the country, and accounts for 52% of the province’s GDP. Babil has some of the most advanced farming techniques in the country, but there is not enough water to take full advantage of it.
The provincial government is controlled by the Society of Faithful Iraqis, which is a part of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC). The U.S. led Provincial Reconstruction Team has rated their rule from low to average. Political development and reconciliation were given the lowest ranking, beginning, while governance was given a developing rank, the second lowest out of five. In 2007, Babil was second best out of eighteen provinces in its budget execution, spending 49% of its $127 million budget. In the fall of 2008 however, incompetent or corrupt SIIC officials used expired chlorine to clean the province’s water supply that resulted in a large cholera outbreak that is still affecting Babil. Several SIIC members were arrested as a result, but Badr Brigade militia members forced the police to release one of them.
Because it is so close to Baghdad, Babil has received a large number of internally displaced from the capital. This has strained and overwhelmed its services. At the end of July 2008, the Special Inspectors General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) counted 77,914 internally displace residing in the province. At the same time, 102 families, consisting of 18,757 people, have recently returned to the province. Of a survey of 11 families conducted by the International Organization for Migration, 91% were able to go back to their original homes, but 57% found them in bad condition.
Security is still an issue there as well. The SIGIR ranked Babil the 8th most violence province in the country. There is still fighting and bombings in the northern section that neighbors the capital, and in the south. The middle is relatively secure in comparison. On October 20 for example, there was a shoot out between insurgents and local tribal SOI along the border with Anbar that resulted in fifteen deaths. The United States began organizing SOI in the province in the fall of 2007. Today there are over 5,000 fighters organized into 23 groups. Attacks in the province have been cut in half as a result.
Another major conflict in the province is the dispute between the Sadrists, Supreme Islamic Council, and the Dawa. This has played out in a number of ways, both politically and violently. In December 2007, an SIIC backed provincial police chief was appointed after the original one was assassinated in a bombing. Both the Dawa and the Sadrists protested his arrival. During the summer of 2008, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki created a Tribal Support Council there to bolster both his military and political standing in the province. The sheikhs received money from Baghdad, and in return pledged their tribesmen to stand by the government. The SIIC governor protested its formation. In September, an Iraqi army squad supported by Americans raided the SIIC office in the provincial capital Hilla and found missiles and IEDs. With the Sadrists weakened after the government’s crackdowns, that leaves the SIIC and Maliki’s Dawa to battle it out for control of the province before the provincial elections, and all of these moves are part of that process.
The last major actor in the province has been the Iranians and their Special Groups. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Qod Force created two main supply routes for weapons and support to flow into the capital. One was shut down due to the efforts of U.S. and Iraqi forces, leaving the southern route that went from Maysan province to Baghdad along Highway 8. That route takes it through Babil, which became a major way station. During the fighting with the Sadrists in March and April 2008, many local police supported or were passive in the face of the Special Groups, Shiite militants supported by Iran. It is not clear how much of their network was cleared up by the Iraqi forces.
It is into this environment that the U.S. plans to hand over Babil to the government this week. The government and economy are doing well by Iraqi standards. The provincial council has done a relatively good job spending its money, and farming is above average, but the SIIC, who rule the province, still see themselves as above the law. Prime Minister Maliki’s Dawa party is trying to challenge their rule by organizing tribes. On the other hand, the formation of SOIs has greatly improved security, but there is still occasional fighting. There is potential for that to increase as the provincial elections near, but it could also re-arrange the political chairs. That could be a small change from SIIC to Dawa rule, but new parties may also join the council.
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- “Iraqi Shiites protest appointment,” Los Angeles Times, 12/25/07