BASRA, Iraq — This southern port city has been, in effect, on its own since September, when British forces here moved to the outskirts, yielding authority to local leaders. British and American officials say Basra’s experiment in self-rule could serve as a model for Iraq’s future, but if so — many locals and outside advisers say — that future remains dark.
What makes the situation in Basra — Iraq’s second largest city and commercial hub — so alarming, they say, is that it is a test of Iraqi rule under relatively optimal conditions: Basra has the nation’s best economic base, little ethnic tension within a homogeneous Shiite population and no Western occupation force to inflame nationalist tensions.
Yet the city remains deeply troubled. Disappearances of doctors, teachers and other professionals are common, as are some clashes among competing militias, most of which are linked to political parties. Murder victims include judicial investigators, politicians and tribal sheiks. One especially disturbing trend is the slaying of at least 100 women in the last year, according to the police. The Iraqi authorities have blamed Shiite militiamen for many of those killing, saying the militants had probably deemed the women to be impious.
“Most of the killings are done by gunmen in police cars,” said Sheik Khadem al-Ribat, a Basra tribal leader who claims no party membership. He spoke of the militias in an antechamber of his downtown mosque, his voice barely above a whisper. “These cars were given to the political parties. There are supposed to be 16,000 policemen, but we see very few of them on the street, and most of the ones we do see are militiamen dressed as police.”