Thursday, June 21, 2007
"I think they're in the Last Throes, if you will, of the insurgency." - Dick Cheney May 2005.
Shiite Rivalries Slash at a Once Calm Iraqi City
By ALISSA J. RUBIN New York Times
DIWANIYA, Iraq — The Shiite heartland of southern Iraq has generally been an oasis of calm in contrast to Baghdad and the central part of the country, but now violence is convulsing this city. Shiites are killing and kidnapping other Shiites, the police force is made up of competing militias and the inner city is a web of impoverished streets where idealized portraits of young men, killed in recent gun battles with Iraqi and American troops, hang from signposts above empty lots.
The unrest in Diwaniya, mirrored in Nasiriya to the south, reflects the emergence of a poisonous political landscape in which competing Shiite groups no longer look to the political system to allocate power. The government’s authority appears to have broken down, with the governor calling this spring for Iraqi Army units, backed by American troops, to restore order. Civilians, not sure where to look for protection, are caught in the deepening fear and uncertainty.
Even now, with a large Iraqi Army force and American troops in the area, the violence has continued. In the first 10 days of June, two police officers were shot dead, an American soldier died from a roadside bomb and the brother and nephew of a prominent militia official were killed. While still less dangerous than central Iraq, where militant Sunni Arabs and Shiites battle for control, the situation has worsened since violence first broke out here last August.
In a daylong visit to Diwaniya earlier in June, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki warned, “We cannot build a state that has another state inside it, we cannot build an army that has armies inside it,” referring to the militias within the province that answer to their leaders rather than to elected officials.
Diwaniya is the capital of the almost completely Shiite farming province of Qadisiya, known for its marshy fields where farmers grow aromatic ambar rice, similar to India’s basmati. Even in town, many people patch together a livelihood with seasonal jobs working the rice fields or tending date palms.
It is a poor province, and poorer now because of a recent decline in the farming sector, making it fertile ground for groups allied with the anti-American cleric, Moktada al-Sadr. The cleric, whose legendary father was beloved here, has reached out to the poor, both in town and in the country.
“Diwaniya was never really quiet, never really peaceful, it was only sleeping,” said Abu Faris, a senior official who works with the provincial council. “There were always troubles below the surface, and now they are coming out.”
The city of about 400,000 people has a history of rebellion; it was the first city in southern Iraq to rise against Saddam Hussein in the wake of the 1991 Persian Gulf war. But when the rebellion failed, Mr. Hussein exacted a deadly retribution, arresting hundreds of men and boys and killing many of them. Underlying Diwaniya’s troubles is a fight between factions allied with rival Shiite clerics, Mr. Sadr and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who leads the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
Mr. Hakim, who has close ties to the Americans, is allied with an older generation of middle-class, more educated Shiites, many of whom spent some of the Hussein era in Iran or Syria.
By contrast, Mr. Sadr blames the Americans for the havoc in Iraq and refuses to meet with any representatives of the Bush administration. Mr. Sadr is linked more closely with the young, impoverished Shiites who stayed in Iraq during the years of Mr. Hussein’s rule. Mr. Sadr’s movement has only 5 members on the 40-member provincial council but enjoys wide local popularity. Both clerics have ties to armed militias, which local residents say have infiltrated the local police and security forces.
Although Mr. Hakim’s Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council is known for its tightly run political arm, that has not always translated into grass-roots support. Diwaniya’s governor, Khalil Jalil Hamza, is from the party, but lived in Iran for many years, returning only after the American invasion, and many local people have criticized his performance. The party also holds the majority on the provincial council.
The result is a governor with little ability to control his territory.
“When problems emerged, assassinations, kidnappings, and when the Sadrists began to move on their own, the governor did not deal with it because he did not know the area, and the problems snowballed,” said Hussein Ali al-Shalaan, a Shiite sheik who represents the province in the Iraqi Parliament and comes from the more secular and moderate Iraqiya coalition.
In March more than 50 people were killed in the province. Now, hardly a day goes by when there is not an attempt to shoot some official. Roadside bombs, unseen in most of southern Iraq, have been aimed at Iraqi and American forces operating in the area.
With no sign of improvement, the governor called in Iraqi Army troops, backed by Americans. In early April the soldiers entered the impoverished warrens at the center of the city, the stronghold of the Sadr loyalists. The area is crushingly poor. The low houses, made of crumbling mud bricks, look as if they would melt in the rain; they have such small doors that men sometimes must stoop to enter them.
Heavy fighting raged for several days, as young men, hiding behind low walls, fired rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s before running away only to pop up again a few streets away, according to accounts from residents. At least 10 men were killed and 50 wounded in the fighting.
More than a month later the area still looked like a war zone with dangling electrical wires and a wary atmosphere. The neighborhood was surrounded by Iraqi Army checkpoints, the soldiers tense and unsmiling as they checked identification cards and opened car trunks to search for guns. The units were not from Diwaniya.
The head of Mr. Sadr’s Diwaniya office, Sheik Haider al-Nadir, fled to Najaf. “I was afraid of being arrested,” he said. “Sometimes they arrest people with no excuse.”
A soft-spoken cleric, Mr. Nadir said Mr. Sadr’s organization was being wrongly accused of fomenting the troubles in Diwaniya, but granted that many groups involved in “bad activities” were using Mr. Sadr’s name. Others agree that some criminal gangs are trying to burnish their image by claiming a connection to Mr. Sadr.
With provincial elections approaching, the Sadr movement believes that the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and the governor want to weaken them by accusing those aligned with Mr. Sadr of causing the problems in the city. The election has been delayed, and Mr. Sadr’s supporters believe that the reason was to give the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council time to reduce his appeal.
For people here, the competing rivalries breed confusion and fear. They do not know whom to trust. “You couldn’t tell which side was responsible for kidnappings, for killings,” said Abu Faris, the senior Diwaniya official who works with the provincial council.
“And if you looked at the victims, they were all kinds of people: police, workers, professors,” he said. “They were from different groups.”
The unease was palpable on a recent visit to Diwaniya. At a checkpoint at the city’s borders, the police stopped several cars with out-of-town license plates and held the occupants, including a reporter for The New York Times, saying the city was not safe. After relenting, they begged the visitors not to tell the next checkpoint, run by the Iraqi Army, that the police had let them into the town.
“They do not like us, they will try to make trouble for us,” said a police lieutenant, Hussain Ali. He added that there were rumors that the governor was going to dismiss 350 members of the police force. “Why are they trying to do this? We will be left penniless, our families and children without a livelihood, and we are accused of nothing.”
At the next checkpoint, stony-faced Iraqi soldiers looked suspiciously at the Baghdad license plates but let the cars through. A few hundred feet farther on, however, outside the compound that housed the governor’s office, uniformed gunmen who would not say whether they were with the police or the army blocked entry even to the government parking lot. There seemed to be no communication between the various checkpoints and no agreed upon rules.
By the time the reporter left the city, the tone of the encounter with the police had changed from threatening to a plea for help. Mr. Ali and two of his police officer colleagues apologized for not having air-conditioning at the police station, but explained that their generator was broken. They were making tea on a small gas stove. But the worst came at night, Mr. Ali said.
“Please, if you speak to the governor, please ask him to fix our generator,” he said. “At night our checkpoint sinks into darkness and we cannot see if someone is about to attack us.”