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January 3, 2004

Christians the Target in Southern Iraq

by Juan Cole

Because the southern Iraqi city of Basra (1.3 million) is under British military occupation rather than American, it is little covered in the US press (does anybody else think this is odd?) There have been several British and Arab reports about the situation there recently. They indicate that although security has improved, property values are up, and people are again holding weddings and smiling, many serious problems remain. The rise of radical Shiite vigilanteism is among the grave new challenges to the development of Iraqi democracy.

Reuters reports (via ash-Sharq al-Awsat 12/31) that 400 shops owned by Christians, whom Saddam had permitted to sell liquor, have been forced to close since April, as the Shiites have come to power politically (see below). Stores have been firebombed, and some Christian shopkeepers have been shot, it is said by radical Shiite groups with names like "The Revenge of God, Hizbullah, and the Organization of Islamic Rules." Their members appoint themselves vigilantes, patrolling the streets armed in search of criminals and drug dealers, and executing them on the spot. These Shiite militias have supporters on the local councils Christians complain that they have been forced out of the liquor market, but that in many cases Muslim merchants have stepped into the breach, making inroads into what had been a Christian monopoly.

Steven Farrell reports in the London Times (12/30) of Basra: "Many of the theatres and music halls where [musicians] used to play have been shut, or converted for use by the many new Islamic parties that claim to represent Iraq's Shia Muslims, the overwhelming majority in Basra. While ice-cream and electronics stores thrive, the fundamentalists have shut down all alcohol shops, aided by rocket-propelled grenades and the summary killing of liquorsellers. Video and CD stores have been closed or had their wares heavily censored. In one CD shop in central Basra, posters of Britney Spears have been taken down. In their place are speeches of ayatollahs, to appease the self-appointed moral guardians." He says that Shiite Islamist gangs have beaten up musicians returning from weddings, e.g.

The London daily ash-Sharq al-Awsat has run a three-part series on Basra the past few days, by journalist Ahmad Jawdah. In his piece of Dec. 29, he speaks of the problems of drug smuggling and high inflation (BBC trans.):

Mu'taz Salih of Basra's Police Directorate, told Jawdah that open borders with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran allowed drug smuggling. " Traffickers smuggle marijuana from Iran where one kilogram of hashish is worth 600 dollars and then they seek to smuggle and sell it for around 1,700 dollars." He said that in some cases Iraq was just a transit route for trans-border smuggling, a new phenomenon.

Catherine MacIntosh, an aide to the British commander in southern Iraq, told Jawdah that oil smuggling is a particular problem, with about 3,000 tons smuggled out each week to Kuwait and the UAE, causing a "structural imbalance" in the Iraqi economy. Reproached for leaving the borders so open as to allow this smuggling, she replied with some heat, "We have 10,000 soldiers in a 150,000-square-mile area that consists of five governorates – home to nearly five million people...in addition to 1,000-kilometre border with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran. We want to achieve security and help the Iraqis to rebuild the state and establish services and security for the people of the south. It is such a vast area of land and it is difficult to control this kind of crime..."

Jawdah says that Basra Deputy Governor Abdul Hafiz al-Ani introduced himself as a businessman, and a political independent. He said he was a representative of a local cleric Sayyid Ali al-Safi al-Musawi, who in turn represented Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Basra. [The deputy governor of Basra is indirectly a representative of Sistani? Maybe the place is already a theocracy!]

Al-Ani hoped for a constitution and an elected government, but said, "We do not want any more foreign forces in our country. We hope the British forces keep their promises and withdraw next June." He said personal freedoms were "permissible" but not if they were abused and became an obstacle to consumption. He admitted that liquor stores had been firebombed, and said, "We would never allow the sale or consumption of alcohol in Basra."

On Baathists: He said they would not be allowed to participate in public life because they were not trusted. He said they were criminals who should be held accountable for their crimes, as the Koran said. He did allow that those forced to join the party would be treated differently.

On Dec. 27, Jawdah had reported a conversation with a policeman in Basra who was from the smaller town of Samawah, also in the Shiite south. He said:

"Unemployment in Basra is not less than 60 per cent and 40 per cent of the people are living under the poverty line. I am from the city of Al-Samawah where conditions are worse and life more difficult. The unemployment rate in Al-Samawah is 70 per cent among men and 95 per cent among women and at least 35 per cent of its population are living under the poverty line."

"...the allocation of jobs in Al-Samawah is done on a partisan, tribal and sectarian basis. The council under the total control of Al-Da'wah Party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and the "Tha'r Allah" (God's revenge) group of the Badr forces. The Sunnis who represent around 10 per cent of Al-Samawah's population are the ones treated most unfairly. They are subjected to discrimination and this discrimination has even reached the point where one of the Shi'i parties seized a Sunni mosque in Al-Samawah, the Imam Ali Bin-Abu-Talib Mosque, two months ago."

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    Juan Cole is Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Visit his blog.


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