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Recent Violence Stirs Sectarian Tensions in Once-Quiet Basra

Times Staff Writer

A series of recent daytime assassinations of Shiite and Sunni Muslim officials here has led to fears that Sunni insurgents, Shiite radicals and Iranian agents may be seeking to destabilize this southern city, which had remained relatively calm since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq two years ago.

No one has been arrested or claimed responsibility for the shootings, which have taken the lives of a Sunni criminal judge and an educational inspector, and two Shiite city council candidates and a major in the Iraqi national guard.

Some residents are concerned that the killings could spark widespread sectarian violence in a city that is dominated by Shiites but also has a significant Sunni population.

Tensions also have increased among Shiite groups as a result of a bloody raid staged by Shiite followers of radical cleric Muqtada Sadr on dozens of university students attending a coed picnic this month. The Sadr movement’s Council for Vice and Virtue claimed responsibility for the attack, saying the students were beaten with clubs and shot at for ignoring religious prohibitions including mixing of the sexes. Several students were injured.

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“We are resentful that this is happening in Basra,” Heider Moshen, deputy secretary-general of a prominent Shiite political organization, said of the killings. “It complicates matters and creates distrust.

“Many groups can be accused to be behind such assassinations.”

Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, is about 60% Shiite and 35% Sunni, according to city officials’ estimates. This makes it a bellwether for the rest of this ethnically and religiously divided nation. “Basra is a model of Iraq in miniature,” said Moshen, of Al Fadila al Islamiya party, which recently forged a coalition with smaller parties to take control of the newly elected provincial council.

Political leaders here say that if the public safety situation deteriorates to the degree that it has in several other major Iraqi cities, the future of the nation is bleak.

Thus far, though, many leading Sunni and Shiite politicians and religious leaders have refrained from calls for vengeance.

“Even if someone targets us, we will tolerate them,” said Salah Battat, chief of the Basra office of the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a leading Shiite political group.

Some leaders have blamed outsiders for the city’s woes -- including bandits, Iranian secret agents and insurgents from central Iraq loyal to Saddam Hussein’s former ruling Baath Party.

“We believe there is someone trying to create sedition between Sunnis and Shiites,” said Sheik Khalaf Essa, a Sunni cleric and leader of Basra’s Iraqi Islamic Party. The Islamic Party was one of several that boycotted the recent election.

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Essa blamed Iranians for some of the violence. Basra, which sits near the Iranian border, is a thoroughfare for many Iranian Shiites making pilgrimages to the Iraqi holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

But Essa has also acknowledged that Sunnis involved in the nationwide insurgency as well as local Sunnis probably had committed some recent attacks.

He said the assaults may have been provoked by the arrest this month of 18 suspected Sunni rebels by the Shiite-controlled Basra police force.

“The intentional marginalization of Sunnis in Basra has created a situation where violence appeared here and there,” Essa said. “Because if people are not able to get their rights peacefully, shortsighted people will take their rights by violence.”

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He also blames the local Shiite-controlled government for failing to prevent violence.

In February, unknown gunmen killed Judge Taha Amiri, a Sunni, as he left his middle-class home for the Basra criminal court, where he sat on the bench for 20 years.

“We are afraid of the people who are controlling the affairs of Basra now,” said Anhel Amiri, the judge’s son.

Education inspector Abdul Rahman Fraih, also a Sunni, was walking home from a midday school meeting last week when gunmen approached from behind and shot him three times.

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Shopkeepers on the busy street said the assassins stood over the dying man, shouting, “He was a Baathist!”

Two days later, as mourners sipped tea under a tent, members of Fraih’s family denied that he had supported Hussein’s regime and said they were mystified by his slaying. But even in his grief, Fraih’s eldest son, Khalid, chose his words carefully.

“There are provinces where all the people are Shiites or they are all Sunni -- they don’t have the relationship we have here,” he said. “But we have the knowledge that we are brothers. We understand very well that we believe in the same religion.

“To reconstruct Iraq, we have to sacrifice,” the son continued, disavowing any desire for revenge. “And we have the honor of offering our father as a shaheed,” a martyr.

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In addition to the assassinations of both Sunnis and Shiites, British sources reported that four improvised explosive devices had been detonated each week so far this month, killing two Iraqi police officers and wounding eight.

Those are light casualties relative to most Iraqi trouble spots, but for Basra, it represents a significant increase in insurgent activity.

Hard-line Shiites associated with Sadr, the radical cleric, have added to tensions with their February raid on the university students.

The attack unsettled moderate Shiites as well as Sunnis. They view the incident as an effort to institute Sadr’s version of Sharia, or Islamic law, by force. Reaction to the incident was noteworthy in that a wide spectrum of political leaders condemned it.

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Even Moshen of Al Fadila, a sister organization to Sadr’s group, criticized the action.

“It is widely known that the Sadr movement isn’t thinking about democracy,” said Moshen, who supports the implementation of a more moderate brand of Sharia in Basra. “We reject what the Sadr movement did. Sharia doesn’t mean you disrespect others and force certain attitudes on them by violence or politics.”

Sadr’s followers appear undaunted by the condemnations. This month they were selling DVDs of the picnic incident in the Basra market to justify the attack and shame the students.

The disc shows male and female students socializing on a parched field. The Sadr supporters added a mournful soundtrack to the video: songs recounting the death of Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad and the founder of Shiite Islam.

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The songs remind viewers that the students’ picnic was around the same time as the anniversary of Ali’s assassination, the birth of the schism between Sunni and Shiite Islam.


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