News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqI felt a new terror on Basra's streets

I felt a new terror on Basra’s streets


Sunday Times: As one of the first journalists to visit Basra without military protection in recent years, Marie Colvin finds Islamic militias are waging a brutal campaign for control in Iraq’s second city. The Sunday Times

As one of the first journalists to visit Basra without military protection in recent years, Marie Colvin finds Islamic militias are waging a brutal campaign for control in Iraq’s second city

There are two photographs in every police file. One is a long shot of a woman’s discarded body, the other a close-up of her last expression.

All the women fell foul of the unwritten rules of the new Basra – they dressed wrongly, they left the home to work, or perhaps they were merely rumoured to have a boyfriend.

Forty-eight manila files have been opened in the past six months. Not one case has been solved. The bare number cannot begin to conjure the horror of these deaths at the hands of Islamic extremists who have the port city in a tightening grip of fear.

In one folder at the Basra police station, the young woman in the autopsy photograph seems to be straining upward in agony, her eyes popping in terror. She is “female unknown identity, found in Hayer Hussein neighbourhood, behind the electric station. 24/8/2007”.

In another, a woman’s nose has been crushed. Trails of blood run from her closed right eye like lines of tears. She is “female unknown identity, found in Al-Mishraq al-Jaid neighbourhood, behind the car dealer. 7/11/2007”.

Their autopsies revealed painful deaths. One woman found in “a red dress” had a 9mm bullet wound in her left hand, three in her right hand, three in her right upper arm, and three in her back. Two of the women were beheaded, one with a saw.

Residents say police have not been investigating. “Everyone knows the militias are doing this, but the police live in fear of them. We all do,” said a middle-aged businessman who was too afraid to give his name.

The walls of Basra would be a good place to start looking for the killers. One graffito on a wall bordering the main Al-Dijari road reads: “We warn all women of Basra, especially those who are not wearing abbaya [a long, loose black cloak worn over everyday clothes”>, that we will kill you.” It is signed in the name of an offshoot of the Mahdi Army, the strongest militia in Basra.

It is not just women who live in fear. Professionals such as engineers, doctors and scientists have been dragged from their homes and murdered.

Yet last week Gordon Brown responded angrily in the House of Commons when challenged over the security situation in Basra. “Iraq is now a democracy,” the prime minister said. “Millions of people have voted. When I went to Basra, only two days ago, I found that there had been a 90% fall in violence over the past few months. We are now able to hand over Basra to provincial Iraqi control . . . This is Iraqis taking control over their own security.”

But what kind of security will the British be passing on to local forces in a ceremony at Basra’s international airport today? Will David Miliband, the foreign secretary, who is flying in to represent the government at the formalities, genuinely be able to remark upon a job well done? Or are the Basrawis being delivered into the hands of the militias?

THE phone rang on the walnut desk of Major-General Jalil Khalaf’s office at midnight. He is the new police commander of Basra and had just been telling me about his determination to stop the killing spree.

The call sent him into agitated overdrive. He picked up another receiver and started barking orders: “Put check-points around the area. Seal it. Quickly. Quickly. The car is white model Crown. All check-points, arrest all cars of that description.”

Half an hour earlier, a young Christian woman had been kidnapped in the Kharj neighbourhood, and he feared the worst.

Khalaf, a dapper dresser in a sharply tailored black suit with matching waistcoat, arrived in mid-June and appears to be the first commander to start taking any action. Brown’s figures suggest it is taking effect.

“I have reopened all 48 women’s files and started investigating them,” he said. “They are also slashing their faces for wearing make-up. These groups declare ‘We are religious’, but this is not religion.”

He believes the true death toll is higher. Families have buried their dead rather than face what is considered a loss of honour, whether the victim is blameless or not.

He has sent a 100-page report back to the national government in Baghdad, detailing Basra’s problems. They differ from those in Baghdad, which had descended into fighting between Sunni and Shi’ite factions before the American “surge” policy of increasing troop numbers brought some semblance of order this autumn.

Basra’s 2m residents are almost all Shi’ite – the fighting is among the main three parties that represent this branch of Islam who are vying for wealth and power.

The stakes are high. Basra, through Umm Qasr just to the east, is the country’s only port and the outlet for most of Iraq’s oil, of which the province has the country’s greatest reserves. Most of the nation’s imports come across its docks too.

It should be a wealthy city, but to drive around reveals the extent of its deterioration. The whole place stinks. The governor, a member of Fadila, the region’s third most powerful militia, couldn’t fix the sewage pipes, so he diverted them into the Ashar river.

The city is mostly low concrete buildings, many crumbling, and whole neighbourhoods are inhabited by squatters who have thrown up illegal and badly built brick or shanty houses. There are daily cuts in electricity and water supplies.

The only civic project that seems to be going well is the provision of new pavements with red tiles. This despite the fact that the city’s roads are pitted with potholes. Strange until one learns that the province’s governor has just opened a tile factory.

Khalaf’s efforts to bring order to the city have given him black bags under his eyes. He describes a world in which the police and the political parties and militias are separate and competing forces. So far the militias are winning.

“The problems are like an interlocking chain,” he said.

“The militias control the ports, which earns them huge sums of money. That money they use to fund their own activities.

“Second, borders,” he continued. “There is a 280km border between us [and Iran”>. Smugglers cross the borders with guns and weapons and these go to the militias. We don’t have enough guards or the sophisticated equipment you need to stop them. You could smuggle a tank across that border if you wanted.”

The militias are exporting oil products and animals, too, he said.

His efforts to stop them and weed the militias out of his own force have not gone unnoticed. So far he has survived seven assassination attempts. Many of his bodyguards have been killed. He believes most of the attempts came from within his own force.

“I will enter the Guinness Book of Records for assassination attempts,” he said.

The root of the problem, Khalaf believes, was the misguided manner in which the British set up the security forces, particularly the police.

“They relied on the political parties and allowed them to nominate people for positions in the police,” he said. “Of course, the parties nominated their own members.”

Khalaf’s personal stock-taking revealed huge quantities of police communications equipment had been delivered directly from police warehouses to the militias, and 1,000 cars had disappeared.

“They were cars with police insignia painted on the side!” he said, exasperated.

Khalaf also found he was paying 3,500 members of the force, at the cost of millions to the Iraqi national treasury, who were actually serving with the militias. They didn’t even bother to show up for work.

His report to the government detailed 28 militias or their offshoots. “All of them have weapons, all are well-trained,” he said. “They have RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades”>, many rifles, bombs, mortars. Their weapons are stronger than ours.”

So worried was he for my safety at the end of my interview that he gave me four trucks of soldiers as an escort to the building I was staying in, and his personal Koran for extra safety. I was already forced to travel under cover of traditional abbaya for fear of identification as a westerner.

THE level of lawlessness is striking even during a short visit to Basra. On my first day,a male relative of the family I was staying with was kidnapped driving into Basra. A series of desperate calls began to try to find him. It has become a well-established ritual.

The next day, waiting in the anteroom of Major-General Farid Mohan, commander of the army in Basra, I asked the man next to me if he was okay. He had two black eyes and lumps on his bald head.

It turned out he was the leader of the first ministry of finance delegation to visit Basra in five months. He had been kidnapped and tortured. Mohan had negotiated his release hours earlier.

Iyad Ahmed sat slumped forward in the grey dishdasha (robe) and leather sandals that he had on when he was kidnapped from his room at the Qusr Al-Sultan, the best hotel in Basra. He had arrived 20 days earlier to investigate the ports and borders.

“When I was kidnapped, I was investigating the theft of 653 new cars stolen from the international free zone in the middle of the afternoon. The thieves killed the guard at the gate as they drove the cars out.”

Following the trail, the ministry team found that 90 of the cars had been used in assassinations, and 35 in suicide bomb attacks.

Ahmed thinks he was targeted when he started investigating free zone officials for what he believed was their involvement in the car hijacking. The free zone is said to be controlled by the Badr organisation, the Islamic party controlled by Abdul Aziz Hakim, the second most powerful Islamic party in Basra.

“I was threatened,” said Ahmed in an outraged voice. “A Mr Falah, the senior man, told me, ‘See what we will do to you today’.”

About 11.30 that evening eight new 4x4s full of gunmen stormed into the hotel.

“They dragged me out of my room in just this,” he said slapping his dirty robe. “I was shouting, ‘I am a government employee’. I thought at first they were after the two women working on my team.”

He was blindfolded, driven to what he believes was a farm because of the noises and tortured for 24 hours. “They beat me all over, they kicked me, and they hung me by my wrists for three hours.”

Mohan secured his release by promising the kidnappers a “gift” if they gave him Ahmed. It is a mark of the hypocrisy of some Islamic extremists that because the Koran forbids them from extorting money they pretend that their ransom for a kidnapping is a “gift”.

Ahmed vowed to keep working, although rather fearfully. “These militias are bigger than the government,” he said.

The government of Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, appears finally to have acknowledged the problem in Basra, but it is unclear if it has the will to wrest the city from the grip of the Islamic parties and their thugs.

“The government is trying to support the forces in Basra,” said Ali Dabbagh, its spokesman. “We’re not trying to hide the fact that there is a threat in Basra, but we think most of the threat is coming from organised criminal gangs who are hiding behind the slogans of JAM [local shorthand for the Mahdi Army”>.”

He pointed out that 15,000 police had been fired from forces across Iraq because they were engaging in criminal activity or belonged to a militia.

He said that another part of the problem in Basra was that there was a “political struggle – [Islamic”> parties are fighting each other”. He said, however, that he thought today would witness “a smooth transfer of power to Iraqi security forces. They are capable of dealing with Basra and we can ask the Iraqi security forces or multinational forces to intervene if there is a problem”.

Yet it is hard for the Baghdad government to move against the religious militias because it is itself led by Shi’ite religious parties. In the cauldron of Iraqi politics, being seen to attack one’s coreligionists is not a good idea.

The Mahdi Army is in theory observing a six-month cease-fire, which it announced in late August. Huge murals of Moqtada and his father Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr line the main roads, rather as larger-than-life portraits of Saddam Hussein did when he was president.

The Sadr office in Basra is a rival centre of power to the official government. Pickup trucks, new Toyotas, even two police cars are parked outside the gates of the compound. Inside the activities are not just military. There are departments for welfare and even a tribunal run on sharia principles.

I met Sheikh Ali As-Sayeedi, one of the Mahdi Army leaders, in his office, furnished with faux-Louis XIV furniture, korans and kitsch plastic ivy.

Many leaders used to declaim openly that their ambition was to take power in the city. But now that the British troops are leaving and Iraqis are taking over, they are more cautious in their language.

Sayeedi, however, insisted that the Mahdi Army had driven British forces from Basra and that they would not give up fighting until the American-led coalition left Iraq.

“It is a good next step for Iraqis to take back their sovereignty in Basra,” said Sayeedi. “We believe all forces should leave the country. We don’t respect any agreement with these forces. Our people are freedom fighters not militias.

“Our programme is to help the Iraqi people and make everyone happy in Basra.”

Why then, I asked him, is everyone in Basra blaming the Mahdi Army for the violence in the streets?

“People here support us,” he insisted, leaning forward and visibly angering. “Criminals do crime and then say that they are the Mahdi Army to appear stronger.”

It is not hard to find the signs of muscle-flexing on the streets, however. On Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, Mahdi checkpoints closed down the city’s main roads for their new custom of busing in hundreds of followers to pray in the middle of the main arteries. Traffic snarled as drivers wove through dirty side roads to get around the jams.

As prayers broke up, men wearing the black turbans of the Mahdi Army strolled away, machineguns slung casually over their shoulders.

THE British gave up the battle for control of the streets of Basra months ago. In September they withdrew from Basra Palace, their base for four years, to the airport.

They say they expect the transition to be smooth. The Iraqis have been policing themselves for four months without calling for help. The British insist the handover is no defeat but the next step in the nationwide transition to Iraqi control.

“The formal handover allows them to deliver Iraqi solutions in an Iraqi way,” said Major-General Graham Binns, the commanding officer for British forces in Basra province. “The way forward is to have the Iraqis take the next step.”

He insisted the British were not cutting and running. They will remain at the airport, reducing to 2,500 by next spring. The Basra government can call on them for support that ranges from surveillance to reentry.

Binns confessed to regrets. “I was more of an idealist when I arrived and perhaps too ambitious,” he said. “I didn’t think it would end this way.

“I’m proud of the way we built up the Iraqi security forces, but we were unable to meet the aspirations of the Iraqi people. I would like to have done better.”

Tomorrow the Iraqi police and army will mark their first day of independent control of Basra with a military parade at Basra Palace.

Last Thursday, Iraqi army guards lounged in sociable groups at the massive arch that leads into the compound on the Shatt al-Arab waterway. Three drank tea together, their weapons leaning against the concrete blast wall installed by the departed British.

They seemed unworried, unlike the civilians outside the walls of the new army headquarters. They certainly didn’t look like soldiers ready to take on the well-armed militias.

Few in Basra would say that the British have met their goal, “to establish the security necessary for the development of political institutions and for economic reconstruction”.

An opinion poll published today suggests that 70% of Basrawis believe security will improve after the British have left – mostly because they have been removed as a target – but everyone I spoke to said this was their number one worry.

“I must look over my shoulder every minute when I am on the street,” said Rula, a 36-year-old mother of four who has refused to quit journalism despite threats. “I look hard at the face of my daughter before I leave for work. Someone might cut my throat and I will not come home again.”

Fears that the militias will begin an all-out battle for Basra or that the city will descend into chaos are unlikely to materialise. The factions will no doubt clash as they jockey for power, but they have carved out their lucrative spheres of influence and have too much to lose to go to war.

Iran will play a key role in the future of Basra. Tehran has more influence here than anywhere else in Iraq. The mullahs fund all the Shi’ite groups rather like a wealthy donor hedging his political bets.

Essentially, the political players are happy with their lot. It is the rest of the people in Basra who will suffer, most likely for years to come.

“I went to university because I had dreams for my future,” said 18-year-old Nayla. “NowI only go to classes twice a week because I am so afraid to leave the house. I have no future.”

Reporting risk

Last week Marie Colvin became the first unembedded western journalist from a British newspaper to visit Basra for nearly two years. The city is extremely dangerous for those not under the protection of the security forces, with foreigners seen as kidnap targets. Colvin could only venture out wearing traditional Islamic dress. She lost the sight in one eye in 2001 from shrapnel from a grenade while on assignment for The Sunday Times in Sri Lanka.

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