Security Comes at a Cost in Iraq’s South

Times Staff Writer

Hashemia Mohsen Hossein’s first death threat came in October.

A member of the 3,000-strong electrical workers union she heads warned her that Shiite Islamists had infiltrated the organization and wanted her dead for stirring up trouble. Four more death threats followed. She says she dares not mention the names of her tormentors.

Yet Hossein says she is grateful to the Shiite militias and political parties that dominate this region of southern Iraq. Her reason: security.

“If you give me a choice and say, ‘Go live in Baghdad, with all its explosions,’ I would pick here,” she said.


Talk of security may seem odd in a city where the mounting number of killings and kidnappings prompted Iraq’s new prime minister, Nouri Maliki, to declare a state of emergency Wednesday.

On Saturday, 32 people were killed and 77 wounded in Basra when a busy market was attacked by a suicide bomber, Iraqi officials said.

But the bloodshed and intimidation in the region, which have been widely attributed to rivalries between Shiite groups, have remained distant from the lives of most members of the Shiite majority. Instead, they have been directed primarily against minority Sunni Arabs and those who are politically active, particularly members of secular political groups.

In its combination of security and repression, Iraq’s south -- the Shiite heartland -- provides a glimpse of what could be the country’s future.

Checkpoint by checkpoint, street by street and institution by institution across Iraq’s southern provinces, the Shiite Muslim parties that ascended to power in last year’s elections have begun imposing their will, clamping down on the modest democratic gains that followed the U.S.-led invasion.

They long ago banned liquor sales and public amusements deemed un-Islamic. Their activities now include busting up labor organizations, menacing secular political rivals and critics, intimidating journalists and academics and drenching the public sphere with Islamic imagery and slogans.

Their activities and tactics closely resemble those used by their fellow Islamic activists across the border in Iran, where many of Iraq’s Shiite political leaders sought refuge during Saddam Hussein’s rule.

The approach has succeeded in establishing a semblance of order in much of the south, something the weak central government has been largely unable to accomplish elsewhere.

Although most of Baghdad’s streets darken into dusty ghost towns, the markets in Najaf, Nasiriya and Kut vibrate with nightlife. In Najaf, young girls walk hand in hand with their mothers after dark through the commercial streets.

But in Basra, residents hold hushed, hurried conversations about the “Ducks,” the speedy Toyota Mark II sedans believed to be driven by hit squads with ties to the Shiite militias.

Many complain about Shiite activists who man guard posts at universities, breaking up mixed-gender gatherings of students and harassing women who don’t fully cover their hair.

They wonder about Steven Vincent, an American freelance journalist who wrote about local corruption and was killed in August; Fakher Haider, an Iraqi correspondent for the New York Times and the Guardian newspaper in London who was shot dead after he was taken from his home by men in police uniform; and Hazem Ainichi, the U.S.-educated former governor gunned down in 2004 by men in police uniforms.

“I feel there is ideological pressure, that there is no liberty and a fear of criticizing certain authorities,” said Bahaa Jamaledin, a moderate Shiite cleric who serves on the provincial council. “This is a bad omen of an unhappy future. It’s clear that sometimes if you criticize certain people, you will lose your life. There are restrictions. There are red lines.”

Other Islamic politicians dismiss such concerns.

“Iraqis don’t understand the limits of the freedom,” said Mohammed Ebadi, the head of the Basra provincial council and a member of the Islamic Dawa Party who spent his exile years in Iran. “They understand freedom as taking someone else’s land and building on it or insulting religion. That is not freedom. That is anarchy.”

Many of the Islamic activists now in control of the south view themselves as obeying religious directives. Like Ebadi, many are former exiles who came of age politically in Iran or Syria, countries with little tradition of democratic give and take. Some view those who fight their authority as apostates defying the will of God.

American and British officials have taken little action against the Shiite militia groups.

“When we speak to the Americans or the British, they say, ‘This is democracy, and they won the election, and now they’re governing,’ ” said a Basra poet and journalist, who asked that his name not be published for fear of retribution.

Western officials generally counsel patience.

“Political culture is something that takes generations to develop,” said one Western official in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The new generation of Iraqi leaders has “experience with some of the basic procedures of democracy. But the question now is whether local political leaders will abide by the rules to let the system develop.”

At this point, that development appears to be running in reverse. After the fall of Hussein, hundreds of civil organizations sprang to life across Iraq. They included new charities, as well as political parties and professional associations outlawed under the previous government.

Now, many of those groups are under pressure from the Islamists.

The Transportation Ministry, controlled by supporters of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, this spring crushed a nascent transport workers union, transferring its organizers out of the region on allegations that they had defamed the then-minister, Salam Maliki.

“We’re in a precarious situation,” said Hassan Asade, head of the 30,000-member Basra oil workers union. “The freedom to organize that we have can be canceled at any moment by a government official.”

The Shiite-dominated security forces have in particular targeted Sunni Arabs, many of them supporters of rival political groups such as the Iraqi Islamic Party.

Mubarak Afwan, 26, a frail musician with a kidney ailment who lives in Zubayr, near Basra, said gunmen stormed his home after midnight three weeks ago, brutally loading him and his brothers onto a pickup truck.

When he finally woke up, he found himself in the local police station, where he and his brothers were beaten for days, he said. After four days, he became so sick from the lack of medicine he needs daily that police officers took him to a hospital, where he was eventually released.

Shiites seen as defying the dominant parties have been targeted as well.

After Hossein Athad Sukeini, a law professor in Basra, and a colleague quit the main Shiite political party to run as independents in December’s elections, they were branded as traitors in Friday sermons.

Sukeini stood his ground, but his colleague was so frightened that he appeared on a Shiite-run satellite television channel and recanted.

“As they’re getting more powerful, our aspirations are getting smaller and smaller,” Sukeini said, referring to the Shiite parties. “The space for freedom is becoming very narrow.”

Maha Kateeb, a teacher who is an advocate for prisoners and women and leads a local branch of the fledgling Iraqi Green Party in the city of Hillah, refused offers to join a Dawa Party women’s organization. The director of her school, a party loyalist, accused her of being opposed to Islamic movements.

A menacing telephone call followed. “They told me to leave human rights work,” Kateeb recalled. “They said, ‘You don’t want to cause pain to your family.’ ”

A few weeks later, men who described themselves as local members of the Iraqi intelligence service took her to a nondescript house for interrogation. “They were friendly,” she said. “But the message was clear: ‘We’re watching you.’ ”

Shiite Islamists publicly labeled Basra University professor Abdul Jabbar Qandoori a kafir, or infidel, after he argued to his students that Iraqis should seek better relations with the West. His son was kidnapped shortly after, released only after he paid a $15,000 ransom.

“I felt like they wanted to remove me from public life,” he said. “It was a blackmail of thought.”

The Shiite leadership may have established an overall sense of security, Qandoori said, but the repression that has come with it “is a very expensive price to pay.”

“We didn’t expect that when the U.S. came.”