Prince of the Marshes in Legal Trouble
The LA Times has picked up a story that had already hit the London press two weeks ago, having to do with Abdul Karim Mahoud al-Muhammadawi, against whom murder accusations have surfaced. Known by his nom de guerre of Abu Hatim (Abu Hatem), Sheikh al-Muhammadawi began waging guerrilla war against Saddam Hussein around 1986, leading some 7,000 fighters from his Marsh Arab people. The Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq had their own distinctive culture, although they are Shiite Muslims and Arabic speakers. Their names are often distinctive, and their style of life– raising water buffaloes, fishing in the swamps, smuggling, and piracy, marked them as a unique subculture. There were thought to be some 300,000 to 500,000 of them. Saddam dealt with their insurgency against him by draining their swamps and forcing them, propertyless, into urban slums in southern cities like Majar al-Kabir, Kut and Amara.
Sheikh al-Muhammadawi, from the powerful Al-Bu Muhammad tribe, a sort of aristocracy among the looked-down-upon Marsh Arabs, organized his people into the Iraqi Hizbullah. He and his fighters took Amara on April 7, two days before the fall of West Baghdad, and the Americans and British rewarded him by putting him in charge there. Paul Bremer put him on the Interim Governing Council.
In the past year, a lot of Marsh Arab slum dwellers have gone over to Muqtada al-Sadr and become Sadrists and Mahdi Army. A minority appear instead to have joined the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and its paramilitary Badr Corps. There is tension within the Marsh Arabs, not only between Sadrists and SCIRI (Iraqi Hizbullah as an independent movement seems in decline), but also among various clans that feud with one another. In summer of 2003, two Marsh Arab tribes came into Basra, the Ghamchi and the Basun, and began feuding with one another. At one point they fought a 4-hour gun battle because one group had killed a water buffalo belonging to the other.
When the Americans besieged Fallujah and then came after Muqtada al-Sadr, Sheikh al-Muhammadawi angrily resigned from the Interim Governing Council and deeply criticized the Americans. This move reflected the fact that most of his tribesmen had become Sadrists (indeed, the whole city council of Amara followed Muqtada).
In the insurrection of the Sadrists against the Americans and the Coalition in April-May of 2004, the Marsh Arab followers of Muqtada fought fiercely in Kut, Amarah, Nasiriyah, and elsewhere. Their dislike of central government and non-Shiite rulers caused them to feel the same dislike for the Coalition that they had felt for Saddam. The US military and its allies responded by killing hundreds of them. I remarked at the time that Paul Wolfowitz, who had earlier trumpeted his support for the Marsh Arabs, had ended up killing hundreds of them, and was criticized for pointing this out.
In mid-May, fighting broke out between Marsh Arabs and British troops in Majar al-Kabir (scene of a massacre of six British troops by tribesmen last June). The British killed 20 fighters, apparently mainly SCIRI’s Badr Corps. Sheikh al-Muhammadawi came down to mediate. But he got into some sort of altercation with the police chief (who was SCIRI), and his body guard (possibly his brother Salam) shot the man down.
A Baghdad court has issued a warrant for Sheikh al-Muhammadawi’s two brothers, one his bodyguard and the other the governor of Maysan Province. It hasn’t been executed because none of the police in the region want to mess with the powerful Al-Bu Muhammad tribe (arresting leading members would provoke a feud between them and the tribes to which the policemen belonged).
On the other hand, it is a little suspicious that several prominent Iraqi political figures who have criticized the Americans or opposed their policies ends up with an arrest warrant being served against them for some serious crime. The LA Times article phrases the issue as one of the rule of law and accountability of public figures. But it seems to me to ignore the important context of the American punitive policies toward the Sadrists and de facto support instead for SCIRI and Sistani.