BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) – The Shi’ite Mehdi Army militia is finished as a fighting force in Iraq’s oil rich Basra province and upcoming provincial elections should pass without violence, the province’s governor said on Tuesday.
Mohammed al-Waeli said an Iraqi security offensive against the Mehdi Army of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr as well as other militias had cut violence in the southern province by up to 90 percent since April.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki launched a crackdown on Shi’ite militias in late March, breaking the stranglehold gunmen had over the province and its capital, Basra city.
The Mehdi Army initially put up fierce resistance, forcing the U.S. military to step in with air and ground support.
A week into fighting, Sadr ordered his militia to lay down their arms. He has since said only a select group would confront U.S. forces, while the rest should focus on political work.
“I think the militias are over in the province of Basra. I really think the Mehdi Army is finished,” Waeli, who belongs to a Shi’ite faction that has been a bitter rival at times to Sadr’s political movement, told Reuters in an interview.
“Some of the elements have escaped to Iran and those that have remained in the province are not strong and are not going to be active in violence of any sort and will not have any affect on the province.”
Most of Iraq’s oil exports flow through Basra, the country’s gateway to the Gulf. Three of Iraq’s six producing oilfields that were open to foreign investors last week are also in Basra.
Officials say imports at Basra’s province’s main port have doubled since the offensive.
Waeli said the Mehdi Army was now more interested in politics than fighting.
“I think many in the Mehdi Army leadership have started to change their outlook and areas of interest,” he said.
KEY ELECTORAL BATTLEGROUND
Waeli said he expected no violence in Basra during provincial elections, partly because of the crackdown.
The elections are scheduled for October 1 but lawmakers in Baghdad have yet to approve an electoral law, which many expect will force a postponement of the polls to later in the year.
Analysts say the elections will be the battleground for a fierce power struggle in Shi’ite southern Iraq, with Basra as the prize given its oil wealth and investment potential.
Sadr’s movement, popular among poor Shi’ites, will be taking part in the local elections for the first time, although its candidates will run as independents or join forces with others.
Waeli said the small Shi’ite Islamist party Fadhila would run on its own, not part of any coalition. Fadhila has little clout apart from in Basra and quit Iraq’s ruling Shi’ite Alliance early last year.
The other main Shi’ite faction in Basra is the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a strong backer of Maliki.
A key election issue in Basra will be federalism.
The Supreme Council wants to create a large federal region with wide autonomy that would include the nine southern mainly Shi’ite provinces. Sadr opposes the idea while Fadhila favors autonomy just for Basra.
“The people of Basra, who I speak for, would like to see Basra become its own separate region. That is up to people to decide,” Waeli said.
Britain once had control of Basra but transferred responsibility for security to Iraq forces last December.