Basra on the Edge
By: Steven Vincent
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, March 16, 2004
At first it seemed like the Coalition’s worst nightmare. At four a.m., March 4, alarms from minarets across Basra called Muslims to seize their guns and rush to their local mosques. From every neighborhood in the city, men poured into the streets brandishing handguns and automatic weapons. “When imams beckon, you don’t lay in bed and say `let someone else go,’” an NGO director quipped to me.
Fortunately, the call to arms was not an insurrection against CPA authority, but a response to reports from several Shitte organizations that four car bombs had entered the city. After the March 2 Ashura massacres at Karbala and Baghdad, the threat seemed credible. For days afterwards, security forces stopped and examined vehicles with extra diligence; police, private guards and religious militiamen approached foreigners on the street and demanded identification. As I write this on March 12, Basra has suffered no attacks. But the atmosphere remains tense.
These days, however, tension is a way of life for this city of two million people. Situated on the Shatt-al-Arab waterway near the borders of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, Basra is a hot-bed of political intrigue, religious ferment and Mafia-style racketeering. Here, Islamic groups maintain private armies, surveillance organizations and, in some cases, criminal gangs; here, too, carjackers and thieves form spurious political parties to disguise their illegal activities. Foreign jihadists sneak into the city across Iraq’s porous borders, even as Iranian agents smuggle out barrels of oil and gas. Meanwhile, British troops patrol the streets in lightly armored vehicles, seemingly oblivious to the surrounding chaos. As for the CPA--well, as Lowai Abbas, editor of Basra’s largest newspaper Al-Manarah, puts it, “They are deluded if they think they have power on the streets.”
Who does have that power, at least for now, are the Basra’s numerous Shiite Muslim groups, many with strong ties to their fellow Shiites in Iran. “Ayatollah Khomenei was a great man,” says Abu Hasan Asaadi, manager of the Basra branch of the Dawaa Party. “Our inspiration for democracy is based on the principles of the Islamic revolution that Khomeini founded.” Declares sheik Aoda al-Obaydi of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), “We stand with Khomeini in his belief that American is the devil, the Great Satan.”
Slowly these groups are tightening their hold on the daily life of Basra, beginning with forcing the closure of stores selling alcohol and video CDs. “We have participated in shutting down those business, yes” Asaadi admits. “We send them warnings and they obey. But,” he adds, “we do not destroy their shops or kill their owners.”
Someone does, though. On May 8th, gunmen murdered four Christian liquor sellers in their stores. “The killers belonged to an Islamic organization,” says Najibah Na’oom, whose brother Iblahad was one of the slain shop owners. Today, Najibah is terrified to leave her house, afraid that the gunmen have targeted the rest of her family. Worse, her husband was also a liquor salesman who closed his shop after the killings and has since remained unemployed. “We would move to Kurdistan if we had the money,’ he says.
Even the spiritual leader of the city’s 1,150 Christian families seems intimidated by the religious parties. “I can’t condone alcohol sales because they are forbidden,” says Catholic Archbishop Gabriel T. Kassab. When I point out that liquor is not prohibited by Iraqi law, the Archbishop shakes his head. “It is forbidden by Islamic law. We must be careful about this. The Church belongs to all Basrans, Christian as well as Muslim. Besides,” the cleric adds, “eleven Muslim liquor salesmen have also been killed.”
To some, this last point indicates that Islamic militants have no sectarian bias when it comes to ridding Basra of booze. But others believe it indicates that organized crime is behind the murders--especially since the liquor stores were also looted and their stocks sold on the street. “Many people believe that the alcohol sellers were killed by criminals who work with the Islamic parties,” says a Basran journalist. Notes a CPA intelligence officer, “Dawaa, SCIRI--they are like Mafia families with their fingers in legal and illegal activities. Either that, or you have ‘political’ parties which are started by criminals in order to give them an excuse to hang out all night.”
Whether its murder, carjacking, drugs or other forms of racketeering, crime is rampant in Basra. “Gangs grew rich working the black market during the sanctions,” explains CPA spokesman Dominic D’Angelo. “Today they are taking over entire neighborhoods to use as bases of operation.” Or, as a British army captain puts it, “The biggest threat to Basra is not terrorists or ex-Baathists, but criminal activity.”
Chief among these illicit enterprises is fuel smuggling. Financed largely by Iranians, criminal gangs load light barges with pilfered crude, then pilot the vessels down the Shatt-al-Arab to offshore tankers, which then sail to destinations around the world. Gas smuggling is another problem: through subsidies, the CPA maintains the cost of a liter of petrol at 20 dinars (making gas, by our standards, roughly free), creating an incentive for racketeers to steal fuel for sale in countries where pump costs are higher. This, in turn, helps create shortages throughout Iraq; several times in Basra, I’ve seen gas lines comprised of 100 or more vehicles.
Worse, intelligence officials believe that Tehran uses profits gained from smuggling operations to meddle in Iraqi affairs. This interference includes funding Islamic political groups, as well as terrorist organizations. “Over the last decade, Iran has planted numerous Hezbollah cells throughout southern Iraq,” notes the NGO director. “Basra,” says the CPA intelligence official, “is the hub of Iranian terrorist activities in Iraq.”
And not just Iranian. Southern Iraq has been infiltrated by terrorists and foreign jihadists of every stripe. For example, the NGO director told me that after the March 4 alert, security forces intercepted three of the four car bombs. “They were funded by Wahabbis from Saudi Arabia and manned by Syrians,” the director related. Strangely, the CPA’s D’Angelo denies that any car bombs were ever headed for Basra (“the whole story is just rumor,” he says)--although he does admit that terrorism is very real in Basra. “Two or three times recently, we have found IEDs planted in the city center,” he notes. “Last February, one exploded in front of CPA headquarters. Fortunately, no one was hurt.”
What are the British Army and the CPA doing about the security situation in Basra? The short answer seems to be--very little. “Crime is a matter for the police and other Iraqi security forces,” says the army captain. When I ask why the Brits bother patrolling the city at all, the captain replies, “We provide psychological stability.” For his part, D’Angelo also asserts that crime falls under the purview of Iocal authorities, not the CPA. “In any case,” he adds, “when Iraq becomes a sovereign nation in July, the CPA will cease to exist.”
Many Iraqis look with dismay as the Church, the CPA and the British army appear unconcerned about security problems in Basra. “We are being abandoned,” the journalist complained to me. “We have no laws, no courts. Judges has no power, administrative corruption is rampant, the police cannot protect us from terrorists, religious parties or criminal gangs.” Says a young Basran woman who works for a NGO, “We’re all afraid of speaking out against the situation. If we do, people will come to our homes to kill us or our families.” When I repeated these comments to the CPA intelligence officer, he threw up his hands. “What I say? The more we do for the Iraqis, the more we’re hated.”
But the less they do, the more power shifts to the very people the war was fought to remove from government. Already, Basran cops have begun to curry favor with the religious parties: throughout the city you see Shiite banners hanging on the sides of police stations, and even affixed to the hoods of police vehicles. And with the recent murders of CPA employees just south of Baghdad, allegedly by Iraqi policemen, the worst security fears of Iraqis may be coming true. “We trust the British and the CPA more than our own police,” says the young NGO worker. “But they are leaving us. What will we do then?”
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