Newsday: Most troubling for U.S. policy in the Middle East is
that many Iraqis believe the police who commit these killings are working ultimately for Iran, where most of them lived for many years in exile from Saddam Hussein. Sources with access to U.S. intelligence confirm that Shia Iran has infiltrated large numbers of agents into both police security and Interior Ministry paramilitary forces. NEWSDAY
By TIMOTHY M. PHELPS
BASRA, Iraq – The professor sat at his computer, insistently pulling up pictures of Basra as the gem it was 30 years and four wars ago. He seemed fixated on the past, deflecting questions about the present and the future.
After much time, he reluctantly turned from the screen to face a visitor and the reality of “the awfulness” of what is happening now.
The day before, the body of Jumhour el-Zergany, his university mentor, had been found dumped alongside the road. Zergany had been tortured, his arms broken, before his tormentors finally put three bullets in his head. His crime, the professor said, was that he had converted years before from Shia to Sunni Islam and had dared to hire religious Sunni professors in the history department that he chaired.
A police van was seen by witnesses to have stopped Zergany’s car at the time of his disappearance, and police vehicles and sometimes men in police uniforms have been involved in others of the hundreds – perhaps as many as 1,000 – assassinations in Basra in the past 18 months.
It is not just Sunnis who are being targeted in this majority Shia city, the professor said, but other Shia as well. All professors – particularly those interested in politics, like himself – are in danger. And not just professors, but judges, and doctors and journalists. And politicians who are seen as secular alternatives to the clergy now in power. And those, especially women, who work for foreigners. And Christians.
U.S. and Iraqi sources say it is often police intelligence officers who commit the killings. British forces, which patrol this region, made a deal to integrate the religious militias here into the police in return for the militias’ disbanding. But they never stopped serving their former masters, the Shia clerics who lead the political parties now in power.
Most troubling for U.S. policy in the Middle East is that many Iraqis believe the police who commit these killings are working ultimately for Iran, where most of them lived for many years in exile from Saddam Hussein. Sources with access to U.S. intelligence confirm that Shia Iran has infiltrated large numbers of agents into both police security and Interior Ministry paramilitary forces.
“I am Shia, but I am afraid of these parties that were in Iran. They are like the fire under the ash,” said an expert on Shia religious movements who was in exile in Iran with many of them. “I am afraid of those Iranians who are behind them, also.”
“Of course I’m afraid,” the professor, a Shia, said emphatically in response to a question, telling a reporter not to use his name. “Some assassinations are political. Some are ethnic. Some are simply of scholars. They are targeted because they are influential, and they are not protected.” In Basra, he said, “there is no longer a distinction between order and freedom.”
Political leaders from the religious parties deny these charges.
Salah Al-Batat is a member of the Provincial Council and a leader in Basra – Iraq’s second largest city – of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a religious party close to Iran. He attributed the assassinations to former members of Saddam’s government. “We are a target of terror,” he said. But he said he was “20 times 100 percent certain that there is not one person from Iran in the land of Basra. If there was anybody from Iran, we would arrest them.”
No one keeps any records of the assassinations. Indeed, the police, when asked, say they do not occur or are the work of terrorists. One political leader said they are in the hundreds and may have reached a thousand.
Nazar Habib, 45, is the dean of the College of Education at Basra University, a huge institution with two campuses. He is also one of two professors elected to the Basra Provincial Council. He said he, like other Shias, “lived under the former regime in terror.” But for him the danger has not ended. Two weeks before a recent interview with Newsday, he said, men with submachine guns opened fire on his car near his home. He was not in the car and no one was injured. He hinted that he was targeted because he had dared to suggest an end to the killings. “Sometimes I said, forget the past, let us begin from zero point. This speech was hated by others,” he said.
The family of el-Zergany lives in bitterness toward the British and Americans who they thought would greatly improve their lives. “We felt the ambition to see a better life that Bush and Blair promised us,” one of his relatives said. “But now the professors, the doctors and the educated people die every day. Is this freedom? Is this democracy? Where is security? Our fate is unknown, because we face a bad day to a worse day.”
“Tell Bush, who came on the back of a tank under the slogan freedom and democracy, we don’t care for freedom and democracy, we care only for security,” the relative said.