The city of Basra, with population of 1.5 million, is Iraq's main seaport and second largest city. It is situated some 550 kilometers south-east of Baghdad along the western shore of Shatt-al Arab, at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, 130 kilometers from the Persian Gulf.
Basra suffered tremendously during Saddam Hussein's rule. The vast majority of the city's population are Shi`a Muslim Arabs. Shi`a Muslims comprise an estimated 55 percent of Iraq's population.1 Despite their numbers, Shi`a Muslims have been historically disempowered and oppressed in Iraq. As one of the chief population centers of Iraq's Shi`a Muslims, the city was a center of opposition to the Ba'th government. Basra's Shi`a residents rose up against Saddam Hussein after the rout of Iraqi forces in 1991, spurred in part by then-U.S. President George H. Bush's call to the Iraqi people to "take matters into their own hands to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside."2 The uprising began in Basra and quickly spread to other major Shi`a areas in southern Iraq (as well as to the predominantly Kurdish areas in northern Iraq). Throughout the south, vengeance killings took place as the population vented its anger against anyone associated with the Ba'th government, killing hundreds of Ba'th party officials, local bureaucrats, and intelligence agents. However, the Iraqi government managed to maintain its control over the country and launched a brutal campaign of reprisal when the United States failed to support the uprising. In the ensuing retaliation, thousands of civilians from Basra were killed and thousands more imprisoned or "disappeared."3
Ongoing opposition to the Iraqi government provoked numerous campaigns of oppression throughout the 1990s. The most serious crackdown occurred in March and April of 1999 after the assassination of Ayatollah Sadiq al-Sadr, a Shi`a Muslim religious leader, who was killed in Najaf while driving home on the evening of February 19, 1999, along with his two sons. Following the murder, Basra was rocked by heavy clashes between protesters and security forces, including attacks on members of the Ba'th party.4 The government response was swift and severe: according to research by Human Rights Watch, at least 150 Shi`a protesters were extrajudicially executed and thousands were imprisoned, had their houses razed, and were banned from holding many jobs.
Basra was relegated by the government of Saddam Hussein to secondary status in terms of economic development. Therefore, with the imposition of international sanctions on Iraq in 1990 after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Basra was particularly vulnerable and its population was further impoverished. Basra was heavily bombed during the 1980-1988 war with neighboring Iran, and targeted again during the 1991 Gulf War and the fighting in March and April 2003.
Southern Iraq and Basra's strategic seaport, Umm Qasr, were among the first targets of U.S.-led coalition forces in March 2003. British forces headed the drive to secure the seaport and occupy Basra. The city was encircled after intense air and artillery bombardment. By March 27, British troops effectively controlled the city's suburbs and all access to the city, and faced resistance only from Iraqi militia and irregular troops belonging to the so-called Saddam's Fedayeen units. As a result of the fighting, Basra's infrastructure suffered significant damage, aggravating its already degraded pre-war conditions, with the city's water system breaking down completely.
This was the condition of the city on April 5, 2003, when British troops, as part of the U.S.-led coalition, first drove into the city center and, as the occupying power, assumed primary responsibility for the security of civilians and humanitarian groups trying to assist them. As of this writing, the population of Basra feels very insecure, due partly to the week of frenzied looting that immediately followed the British occupation, and continuing as a result of the lower intensity but steady crime wave (including daily killings, looting of private property, and car-jackings) now engulfing Basra like many other cities in Iraq. This report, based on four weeks of field research by Human Rights Watch researchers in southern Iraq, shows that more than six weeks after the fall of Basra, the security situation remained poorly addressed by coalition forces. Despite efforts by the British military to deploy their relatively small number of troops to improve security conditions in the city, the population continued to live in fear of violent crimes and with growing concerns about the failure of the coalition forces to provide them with greater security.
By mid-May British forces had instituted some measures to improve security-such as beginning to reconstitute a police service and a judicial system. But crime levels were still noticeably higher than the pre-war period: hospitals reported six or seven violent homicides daily and an equal number of injuries attributed to gunshot wounds; carjacking and violent home invasions occurred at the rate of one or two daily. The people's anxiety about lack of security was further compounded by a sense of confusion about what, if anything was being done to protect them. In this security vacuum, Iraqis have increasingly looked to the former government's police forces as possible protectors, despite very serious misgivings about that police force's history of brutality and corruption. Although British patrols became more visible around the city center, and at least four police stations reopened with some five hundred active Iraqi police officers, this police presence was completely inadequate for meeting the security needs of a city the size of Basra, particularly in the climate of heightened lawlessness following the fall of Saddam Hussein's government.
British military forces were aware of this problem, and were actively casting about for solutions. Senior British and U.S. military officers repeatedly told Human Rights Watch that they had been given an impossible task in converting their small combat units into a force sufficient for the task of providing security to civilians. As a result, British officials, like U.S. military officials from other Iraqi cities interviewed by Human Rights Watch, appeared to be improvising different responses in each city they controlled. These efforts have been hampered by inadequate manpower and insufficient support and direction at a national level.
The lack of a centralized system for gathering information about crimes and communicating information about any prosecutions has further aggravated the sense of insecurity felt by ordinary Iraqis interviewed by Human Rights Watch. In large part, this is due to the failure of ORHA (Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, effectively the coalition's civilian administration in Iraq, which has been subsumed under the Coalition Provisional Authority since early May) to take on responsibilities for coordination and direction at the national level. During the first six weeks after the occupation of Iraq, Human Rights Watch researchers found no centralized system for law enforcement; no system for gathering or tabulating national or local data relating to criminal incidents; no coordination between coalition security and police forces in different sectors of the country; very little coordination between U.S. and U.K. zones, and very little coordination in terms of how to treat, investigate, and prosecute criminal suspects.5 Human Rights Watch spoke to coalition forces responsible for security in the three main southern cities: Basra, al-`Amara, and al-Nasiriyya. British forces occupy the first two; the last is occupied by U.S. troops. While coordination did exist between Basra and al-'Amara, there was little communication between the British and U.S. zones, and military officials in all three cities stated they had received little, if any, direction from ORHA.
The failure of the U.S. and British to prepare for fulfilling their obligations after occupying Iraq is all the more glaring in light of two relevant factors: first, coalition forces should have expected an outbreak of looting and other crimes given of the experience of severe lawlessness following the first Gulf War in 1991, the economic hardships facing the Iraqi population, the release of thousands of prisoners convicted for criminal offences from Iraqi jails in October, 2002, and the wide availability of firearms among the population.
Second, in addition to these Iraq-specific conditions, general experience with peacekeeping operations in post-conflict situations in Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor all demonstrate the importance of providing security immediately after the end of military conflict. For instance, in Kosovo, as in Iraq, U.S. and British forces controlled territory essentially without any government structure, prey to rampant criminality, and requiring investigation of large numbers of past and ongoing human rights abuses. Given the presence in Iraq of many military officers who had served in Kosovo (especially among British forces), one would have expected coalition troops to apply the lessons learned from Kosovo in Iraq. Human Rights Watch's research in southern Iraq showed this not to be the case. As is set out in more detail below, coalition forces committed several grave errors in the first weeks of occupation that aggravated the current climate of insecurity in southern Iraq. Chief among these avoidable errors were:
· Failure to adequately prepare for the predictable breakdown in law and order following military operations and the fall of the civilian administration;
1 Human Rights Watch (formerly Middle East Watch), Human Rights in Iraq, (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1990).
2 "Excerpts from Statements by Bush on Strategy in Gulf," New York Times, February 16, 1991.
3 Human Rights Watch, Endless Torment: The 1991 Uprising in Iraq and its Aftermath, (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1992). This report documented the atrocities perpetrated by the Iraqi government forces after the 1991 uprising, and included testimonies from Iraqi refugees who had fled to Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.
4 Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 2000 (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2000).
5 Paul Bremmer, head of the Provisional Coalition Authority, convened the first meeting of military police authorities from around Iraq on May 18, 2003. Human Rights Watch interview, Basra, May 18, 2003.