BASRA - The eruption of demonstrations in the south of Iraq this week could
rob the occupation forces of what was considered a critical bastion of support.
The southern areas of Iraq have long been said to be secure, and people there
peaceful towards the occupation forces. Iraqis living in the south were also
believed to be cooperative with the occupation to the extent that they supported
administrative steps taken by successive Iraqi governments.
The majority of the population of the south are Shi'ite Muslims, and Iraq has
had Shi'ite-dominated governments under the occupation.
But demonstrations against the occupation and the United States by hundreds
of thousands of angry Shi'ites in Najaf, Kut and other cities across the south
Apr. 9 mark a sharp break from a policy of cooperation. Protesters demanded
an end to the U.S.-led occupation, burnt U.S. flags and chanted "Death
Brig. Gen. Abdul Karim al-Mayahi, a police commander in Najaf, told reporters
that at least half a million people joined the demonstration there.
Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, told reporters,
"We say that we're here to support democracy. We say that free speech and
freedom of assembly are part of that. While we don't necessarily agree with
the message, we agree with their right to say it."
Clashes after the demonstration left at least one U.S. soldier dead and another
wounded in Diwaniyah, 180 km south of Baghdad.
"We have been patient and we have sacrificed a lot thinking the situation
would be better one day soon," Hussein Ali, a teacher from Diwaniyah told
IPS. "The result we see now is that we were dragged into a swamp of hatred
between brothers, and that all the bloodshed was for the sake of war leaders
to get more power and fortune."
Fighting is continuing in Diwaniyah between the occupation forces and the Mahdi
Army led by Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Additional U.S. and Iraqi troops
have been brought into the city to make arrests and carry out door-to-door raids
in search of illegal weapons and wanted militiamen.
Muqtada al-Sadr, quiet for a considerable period after clashing with U.S. troops
early on in the occupation period, publicly called on his militia to attack
So far this month, five occupation troops have been killed every day on average,
according to U.S. Department of Defense figures.
The new Shi'ite armed uprising, which appears to be in its early days, is a further
blow to occupation forces that are already stretched thin.
"Four years of patience and what do we get?" Ali Hashim, a merchant
from the southern city Basra told IPS. "We got nothing but the loss of
our country to those who spoke a lot but did nothing. The United States failed
us and sold us cheap to those who would have no mercy on us."
Mahmood al-Lamy, a historian from Basra told IPS the situation there was critical.
"Basra is the biggest southern city and the only Iraqi city that has a
port near the Gulf. It is now controlled by various militias who fight each
other from time to time over an oil smuggling business that is flourishing under
Lamy said residents fear that "the situation here will be a lot worse
in the coming months due to disputes that are appearing between major parties."
Lamy was referring to the withdrawal last month of the al-Fadhila Party from
the Shi'ite Islamic Coalition Parliament Group, and the dismissal of two ministers
from the al-Sadr movement as a punishment for contacting U.S. officials in Nasiriyah
in southern Iraq.
The Shi'ite political group is increasingly divided over many issues, and it seems
unlikely that it will hold together. But many of the groups are increasingly
opposed to the occupation.
"We were late to realize that we were wrong about U.S. intentions,"
Salman Yassen of the Basra city municipality council told IPS. "We waited
four years while U.S. and Iraqi authorities kept us busy fighting each other
while they were setting the plan of stealing our oil and tearing our country
apart so that their allies would feel safe."
Four years of the occupation of Iraq have seen many changes in U.S. strategies,
ambassadors and tactics, but the changes may be too little, too late.
"The delay in moving politically has cost Iraq, the U.S. and many other
countries a great deal," former Iraqi police colonel Ahmed Jabbar told
IPS in Baghdad. "The least to be said is that the world would have been
better off without this occupation and the catastrophic security disturbance
it has caused."
(Inter Press Service)