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Basra breathes a little easier but can’t relax

Times Staff Writers

The corniche buzzes at night: drivers honking to friends on the sidewalk, teenagers joy-riding rickety motorboats along the murky Shatt al Arab, families lining up for rides on the yellow-lit Ferris wheel.

Mazen Abdul Kareem gazes at the water, remembering when the gunmen trawled the boardwalk in their tinted-window Toyotas. Even then, he would come, just looking out where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers merge and flow into the Persian Gulf, wondering whether his time was near. There were too many victims. Doctors. Professors. Women. Students. Musicians.

For three years, Basra was held hostage to greed-fueled conflicts, a city synonymous with gangs fighting for control of the region’s oil resources and lucrative oil-smuggling trade. One senior Iraqi Cabinet member cautioned that the city’s blend of corruption and gangland politics could very well be Iraq’s future.

In late March, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki dispatched an estimated 33,000 troops to tackle the militias and assert control over Iraq’s economic gateway. But even as residents hope that a new era has dawned, they are fearful that once this Iraqi operation is over, the city could again fall victim to political violence.

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In interviews, security officials and residents pointed to what they called the lack of clean hands in the city. With most local political figures linked to the fighting and criminal activities of the last three years, the Maliki operation’s effectiveness in bringing long-term stability to Basra is questionable.

“There are 47 parties in Basra, and all of them have militias,” said a high-ranking security official with detailed knowledge of the Basra operation. Like many others interviewed for this report, he spoke on condition of anonymity.

Three mid-level police officers here described the hellish situation before troops moved in -- mayhem that involved just about every player in the city. They accused the Mahdi Army, which is loyal to populist cleric Muqtada Sadr, of kidnapping doctors and other professionals; an Iranian-backed religious party called Thar Allah (Vengeance of God) of killing unveiled women; Basra Gov. Mohammed Waeli’s Al Fadila al Islamiya party of oil smuggling; and the Badr Organization militia allied with the leading member of Iraq’s ruling coalition of arms dealing and assassinating political rivals.

“We don’t trust any of the parties,” one of the officers said.

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Although Maliki has grown in stature for ordering the Basra offensive, Sadr’s followers have alleged that the operation was intended to help Maliki and his chief partner, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, to wrest control of Basra.

Before the campaign, Sadr’s radical movement had been poised for victory in provincial elections, scheduled for fall, which the United States hopes will go a long way toward ending Iraq’s strife.

“We controlled everything in Basra. We were able to apprehend the criminals. The police couldn’t believe it,” Mahdi Army spokesman Muhannad Hashimi told The Times. “We had more authority than the government. We had supporters everywhere and the people loved us.”

Slashed portraits of Sadr and Mahdi Army fighters reinforce the group’s belief that the operation amounted to a power grab. The campaign’s first week saw troops raid Sadr strongholds, sparking clashes with Mahdi Army militiamen.

The fighting stopped only when Sadr commanded his troops to lay down their arms. A flattened prayer tent and the collapsed, bullet-riddled Sadr office are testament to the new order.

The high-ranking security official alleged that the offensive, dubbed the “Knights’ Onslaught,” had been moved up from June to March under pressure from the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council to weaken the Mahdi Army. With the campaign, the officer said, SIIC and its Badr militia have positioned themselves to win the elections by whatever means.

“Basra is crucial,” he said. “Before the Knights’ Onslaught the city was under Sadr’s control. Now SIIC and Badr have decided they will win.”

Supreme Council officials dismissed the allegations. Abu Zeinab Kanani, the party’s deputy chief in Basra, also denied any involvement in criminal activity.

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“No party can be above the law,” he said. “If one of our members breached the law, they would not be considered a part of our party.”

Residents say that before the operation, politics and criminal activity were blurred. No movement was immune to the temptations of the thriving underworld, they say.

“Most of the officials were affiliated to political parties. Some from the Sadrists and others from SIIC,” said a senior employee at Basra’s Abu Fulus port. “All of them benefited from the smuggling.”

A policeman who patrolled a key smuggling route recalled that when he was assigned his post, his colleagues gave him little choice but to help steal oil.

“I was told that I would benefit financially beyond my wildest dreams and if I refused, I would be doomed,” he said. “Many of the big fish have escaped to neighboring countries or provinces. They are waiting for the end of the operations so they can return.”

The political and criminal lines blurred even with kidnappings and assassinations.

A doctor in Basra’s health directorate said criminals used Shiite militia affiliations for cover when they targeted his colleagues.

“People said they belonged to the Mahdi Army, but it wasn’t true. They just used the name. Most killings and kidnappings were just for money,” the doctor said.

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Sometimes the violence had a distinct sectarian flavor.

Khalid Sarayfai, a Sunni Arab, remembers when officers from the intelligence directorate, dominated by the Shiite Badr group, detained his brother in 2005. His body was found a few hours later beside a bridge in a suburb west of Basra. Sarayfai said he went to the police for help, but was turned away.

“They told us, ‘There is a power higher than us. We cannot meddle,’ ” he recalled.

Even people sympathetic to militias such as the Mahdi Army have grown weary.

Sheik Abu Walid lives above an auto-parts shop in the Jumhuriya neighborhood, on a street with a billboard of Sadr. But he acknowledges that something had gone awfully wrong with the Mahdi Army. Like many, he blames the excesses on infiltrators wanting to sabotage the militia.

“There are many people who infiltrated the Mahdi Army and the Sadrists and they were doing these bad things,” Abu Walid said.

He recalls watching, terrified, outside his home as gunmen pushed a man into a car and drove off. “We heard that if a girl didn’t wear a veil she would be killed. A Muslim woman should wear the hijab, but there are many Christians who don’t want to wear it. And that is their right. Only God can judge women, not man.”

For others, there is relief. At Basra’s university, male and female students mix freely, after three years of threats from the militias that had run the campus, some thought to have links with the Sadrists, Thar Allah and even the Fadila party. Cellphones ring out pop tunes from Arab singers and bands such as the Backstreet Boys.

Business major Haidar, 23, is growing his hair out.

“I liked having long hair. I thought it was beautiful,” he said, amid the cacophony of students, dressed in jeans and T-shirts at the outdoor snack bar. But after March 2005, when Mahdi Army supporters beat students having a co-ed picnic and killed one of them, things changed and he snipped his hair.

“I was threatened many times because of my hair length,” he said, adding that his favorite barber had been shot in the leg for shaving off beards.

Now, he can dress the way he wants, walk alone with a woman on campus or decorate his textbooks with images of his favorite Iraqi pop singer -- Kathem Saher -- pictured in a designer suit talking to a beautiful woman at sunset by a quaint chalet.

When he talked about the men who imposed fear on campus, he refused to say who they were. He answered nervously, “They were from parts of the political parties.”

The danger hasn’t gone away. The other day, Haidar went to a party on the corniche. They were calling it a prom, and the area was packed. Motorcyclists revved their engines and the students decided to keep the party rolling till midnight. Some sipped cold beer. They even had a band with ouds and drums.

“We thought all the singers and musicians had been killed. We wondered, ‘Where did they come from?’ ” he said with a smile.

Then the sound of gunfire rang out from one of the buildings overlooking the corniche. The students fled in panic. But now they say they are undeterred and will continue to venture out to their corniche.

A friend of Haidar’s chimed in: “If someone wants freedom, he has to be ready to pay for it.”

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ned.parker@latimes.com

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A special correspondent contributed to this report.


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