Security Comes at a Cost in Iraq's South

Bit by bit, Shiite groups empowered by voters are imposing their will on the public. The result is a semblance of order amid repression.

June 04, 2006|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

BASRA, Iraq — Hashemia Mohsen Hossein's first death threat came in October.

A member of the 3,000-strong electrical workers union she heads warned her that Shiite Islamists had infiltrated the organization and wanted her dead for stirring up trouble. Four more death threats followed. She says she dares not mention the names of her tormentors.

Yet Hossein says she is grateful to the Shiite militias and political parties that dominate this region of southern Iraq. Her reason: security.

"If you give me a choice and say, 'Go live in Baghdad, with all its explosions,' I would pick here," she said.

Talk of security may seem odd in a city where the mounting number of killings and kidnappings prompted Iraq's new prime minister, Nouri Maliki, to declare a state of emergency Wednesday.

On Saturday, 32 people were killed and 77 wounded in Basra when a busy market was attacked by a suicide bomber, Iraqi officials said.

But the bloodshed and intimidation in the region, which have been widely attributed to rivalries between Shiite groups, have remained distant from the lives of most members of the Shiite majority. Instead, they have been directed primarily against minority Sunni Arabs and those who are politically active, particularly members of secular political groups.

In its combination of security and repression, Iraq's south -- the Shiite heartland -- provides a glimpse of what could be the country's future.

Checkpoint by checkpoint, street by street and institution by institution across Iraq's southern provinces, the Shiite Muslim parties that ascended to power in last year's elections have begun imposing their will, clamping down on the modest democratic gains that followed the U.S.-led invasion.

They long ago banned liquor sales and public amusements deemed un-Islamic. Their activities now include busting up labor organizations, menacing secular political rivals and critics, intimidating journalists and academics and drenching the public sphere with Islamic imagery and slogans.

Their activities and tactics closely resemble those used by their fellow Islamic activists across the border in Iran, where many of Iraq's Shiite political leaders sought refuge during Saddam Hussein's rule.

The approach has succeeded in establishing a semblance of order in much of the south, something the weak central government has been largely unable to accomplish elsewhere.

Although most of Baghdad's streets darken into dusty ghost towns, the markets in Najaf, Nasiriya and Kut vibrate with nightlife. In Najaf, young girls walk hand in hand with their mothers after dark through the commercial streets.

But in Basra, residents hold hushed, hurried conversations about the "Ducks," the speedy Toyota Mark II sedans believed to be driven by hit squads with ties to the Shiite militias.

Many complain about Shiite activists who man guard posts at universities, breaking up mixed-gender gatherings of students and harassing women who don't fully cover their hair.

They wonder about Steven Vincent, an American freelance journalist who wrote about local corruption and was killed in August; Fakher Haider, an Iraqi correspondent for the New York Times and the Guardian newspaper in London who was shot dead after he was taken from his home by men in police uniform; and Hazem Ainichi, the U.S.-educated former governor gunned down in 2004 by men in police uniforms.

"I feel there is ideological pressure, that there is no liberty and a fear of criticizing certain authorities," said Bahaa Jamaledin, a moderate Shiite cleric who serves on the provincial council. "This is a bad omen of an unhappy future. It's clear that sometimes if you criticize certain people, you will lose your life. There are restrictions. There are red lines."

Other Islamic politicians dismiss such concerns.

"Iraqis don't understand the limits of the freedom," said Mohammed Ebadi, the head of the Basra provincial council and a member of the Islamic Dawa Party who spent his exile years in Iran. "They understand freedom as taking someone else's land and building on it or insulting religion. That is not freedom. That is anarchy."

Many of the Islamic activists now in control of the south view themselves as obeying religious directives. Like Ebadi, many are former exiles who came of age politically in Iran or Syria, countries with little tradition of democratic give and take. Some view those who fight their authority as apostates defying the will of God.

American and British officials have taken little action against the Shiite militia groups.

"When we speak to the Americans or the British, they say, 'This is democracy, and they won the election, and now they're governing,' " said a Basra poet and journalist, who asked that his name not be published for fear of retribution.

Western officials generally counsel patience.

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