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AFTER THE WAR GOVERNANCE

Local Boss' Rise Shows the Perils of a Power Void

April 26, 2003|Michael Slackman | Times Staff Writer

AL KUT, Iraq — Said Abbas sat in the governor's chair, signed papers as the governor, gave speeches as the governor, even had a governor's assistant who wore a smart yellow jacket with a black tie. But the Marines had another title for him: squatter.

In postwar Iraq, every ethnic group, religious group and social group is trying to stake its claim. Abbas claimed Al Kut, making it impossible for the Marines to consolidate power and get the Tigris River city of 300,000 running again. So on Friday, Abbas was given an ultimatum: Leave or face arrest. Not long before the Marines stormed City Hall, Abbas slipped out the back door.

For more than two weeks, this self-declared governor occupied the ornate office of the former governor. Dressed in the robes of a Shiite religious leader (though he never received formal religious education), he was surrounded by the accouterments of power: shimmering crystal chandelier, gaudy white furniture and a room full of admirers willing to jump at his command.

He said he was elected, or selected, by his neighbors in the Shiite community because he is a humanitarian.

"I am a popular man," he said with a hint of a smile and not a touch of humility, about an hour before he made his escape. "I have a popular base. The good and patriotic people are in need of an influential person, especially now, so I came with them to this place."

The Marines said Abbas was a "thug" trying to consolidate power and enrich his friends. They said he took control of the government-owned food warehouses and tried to sell the food. They said he extorted money from local business in what amounted to a protection racket.

And they said his supporters threatened to have his enemies killed.

Whatever the truth is about the rotund Abbas, who is affiliated with the Iran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, he was undeniably an embarrassment to the Americans, a symbol of their failure to fill a power vacuum that arose in Iraq when Saddam Hussein's regime fell.

Instead, Shiite religious leaders have seized power, and Iran has allegedly tried to exert influence on its neighbor.

For more than two weeks, U.S. forces in Al Kut tried to look the other way. They tried to work around Abbas. They tried to marginalize him. They tried to convince residents that if they wanted to get something done, such as get the police back to work or the electricity turned on, their best hope was with the U.S. military, not Abbas and his band of followers.

The Americans are able to overcome a lot with their weapons and technical know-how. What they can't overcome, not right away, is 30 years of conditioning -- and for 30 years, symbols of power were synonymous with real power.

So as long as he sat in the governor's chair, and as long as his followers occupied the building associated with power, Abbas was perceived as having power. His followers, hundreds if not thousands of young men, camped outside his office to protect him. Local tribal leaders stopped by to pay their respects. Religious leaders praised him in their sermons.

Abbas soaked it up, until the letter came. The Marines decided they had had enough. Shortly before 6 p.m. Friday, Abbas decided not to fight and left. Not long after, the Marines arrived in force, with Humvees surrounding the building and young men armed with M-16s and steely stares taking up positions as crowds of men, some astonished, some angry, others just curious, poured into the streets.

"Everyone should go home," the Marines announced in booming Arabic from speakers mounted atop their vehicles. "It is not a movie. A single shot and it will be a real battle here."

Suddenly, Abbas was gone and the United States demonstrated once again that authority can come at the end of a rifle.

But the challenges are far from over, in Al Kut or anywhere else in Iraq. How long can military might ensure authority when what people want is self-determination -- and electricity?

"This is an American-British occupation, which is humiliating," Said Abu al Hail, 40, said as news of Abbas' departure spread. "They said they are going to liberate the people and let them govern themselves. When?"

It may well be that once America installs a civil administration in this country, all of the jockeying for power will be forgotten. But for now, there is a sense among the people that Iraq is tacking into the wind without anyone at the helm. People want their lives back, and while it has been only a bit more than two weeks since the collapse of the government, patience has worn thin.

"I want security," Samer Kassim, 40, wailed as he stood outside City Hall with the thousands of others who had gathered to see what happened. "We don't care if it is Abbas or America. We want security."

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