The instability of the Iraqi south was on display Friday, as a doomsday cult attacked police and religious mourners on the eve of Ashura’, the holiest day of the Shiite Islamic calendar. The clashes in Basra and Nasiriya left at least 80 dead and 90 wounded according to the LAT.
The cities were under curfew Friday night, as over 2 million Shiite pilgrims gathered in the shrine city of Karbala to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.
The initial clashes were not so important in themselves, since the Mahdist group involved appears to be quite small. But they demonstrate how bad security really is in Iraq, and what a morass the Democrats are likely to inherit. The only way I can make sense of the allegation that the fighting spread to 75% of Basra districts is that other groups joined in the attacks on police checkpoints, beyond just the Mahdists. And, the sectarians seem to have put up an impressive fight in Nasiriya, where they killed and wounded officers of the Iraqi security forces.
A group called Ansar al-Mahdi (Supporters of the Promised One), which may or may not be the same as or related to the Army of Heaven cult that attacked Najaf in January of 2007, engaged Iraqi police and army forces in two major southern cities. The disturbances are said to have affected 75% of Basra neighborhoods and to have left some 50 dead and dozens wounded. Basra, population 1.5 million, is Iraq’s major port and the place from which its petroleum is exported. A security collapse there would deeply affect the whole country.
Al-Qabas reports in Arabic that the Supporters of the Promised One attacked and took control of a police checkpoint in Basra, then set it ablaze. Eyewitnesses told the Kuwait News Agency (KUNA)that the checkpoint stood at the Jumhuriya intersection in downtown Basra. The cultists killed three Iraqi soldiers and several civilian bystanders.
In the nearby al-Janinah neighborhood in Jumhuriya district, the zealots wounded two policemen and then took over their checkpoint, burning it down.
Sawt al-Iraq reports in Arabic that Basra police chief Abdul Jalil Khalaf said that fighting also broke out in al-Andalus quarter in central Basra. He maintained that Iraqi police had killed Abu Mustafa al-Ansari, the alleged leader of the Basra uprising. Khalaf had ordered an assault on the sect’s headquarters. After that, the disturbances spread to other districts of the city, including Jumuhuriya, Janinah and Jabaliya.
Eyewitnesses in Jabaliya who participated in processions honoring Imam Husayn said that the Supporters of the Promised One killed two traffic cops and kidnapped a third who had been wounded in a police car in a confrontation with the cultists near the Gulf Flour Co. They reported that the Supporters then commandeered six emergency rescue vehicles and two police cars.
The cultists occupied the Oil Institute building and a hospital in Zahra district. Iraqi troops (presumably of the 14th Division) then deployed attack helicopters to strike at the Husayniya (Shiite Mourning Center) in Zahra District where the Supporters of the Promised One were holed up. A woman was killed by a sniper’s bullet in Ma`qal District, 7 miles north of Basra.
The Supporters of the Promised One also attacked and killed members of the Sadr movement in Basra. After that, the Sadrist paramilitary, the Mahdi Army, joined the fray against them on the side of the government forces. Sadrist spokesman Salah al-Ubaydi said in Najaf that the Mahdi Army had no connection to the disturbances in Basra, and that the JAM was uninvolved in this outbreak of violence.
Iraqi government sources maintained that they had reestablished control by Friday evening, setting up inspection checkpoints in most major intersections. The LAT reports 50 killed in the Basra fighting, at least.
Nasiriya is a smaller city than Basra, lying to its north in Dhi Qar Province. The Supporters of the Promised One or Ansar al-Mahdi also came into conflict with Iraqi security forces in that city. The LAT reports 20 killed and 25 wounded. A sniper from among the Supporters killed Col. Naji al-Jabiri (commander of the city’s Special Forces brigade). They also killed the Director of the Police Operations Office.
A police spokesman in Nasiriya said, “A group of millenarians attacked the HQ of police investigations in Nasiriya with light and medium arms. Clashes broke out that led to the death of Col. Zamil Ramid, the assistant director of investigations.” He added, “Army troops arrived at the place and succeeded in expelling the gunmen.” The local authorities announced a curfew in Nasiriya “until further notice.”
According to eyewitnesses, Supporters had come to the mosque to pray while carrying firearms. They refused to disarm when the police accosted them. A policemen is said to have told them, “We do not wish to prevent you from praying, but we do not want to see the brandishing of weapons.”
The Supporters refused to relinquish their weapons, saying “The Imam Mahdi will appear today and we want to fight the apostates alongside him.”
Al-Qabas says that a big battle broke out in Salihiya District in north Nasiriya between the Supporters and security forces. A spokesman for the millenarians, Abd al-Imam Jabbar, is quoted as saying that they had launched into action on the basis of a fatwa given by Sayyid Ahmad b. al-Hasan [al-Basri al-Yamani], in hopes that if they could disrupt security it would provoke the appearance of the Imam Mahdi or Promised One.
Another police officer said that the sectarians were waving yellow standards and wearing yellow headbands, and were shooting indiscriminately in north Nasiriya. He added that the Supporters had rocket propelled grenades. When an Army rapid reaction force intervened against them, they waged a fierce battle with it, and badly wounded its commander, Capt. Abd al-Amir Jabbar al-Munadi. They also killed 4 other policemen and wounded 9. Nasiriya’s morgue said that among the dead was a woman, in addition to the 4 policemen.
The sectarians were said to have been bent on disrupting the Shiite processions on behalf of Imam Husayn, in hopes that by creating chaos, they would bring about the advent of the promised one.
Special Police Commandos from the Interior Minister arrested 8 members of the group.
Western wire services and newspapers quote Iraqis from Nasiriya as saying that machine gun fire and explosions could still be heard into the night, unlike the case with Basra, where order appears to have been restored.
Some will say that it is good news that the Iraqi security forces were able to put down the uprising by themselves. This is true, though how much help the US gave, exactly, is shrouded in mystery on these shores. But it is also true that the cultists were able to kill one high ranking army officer and to wound two others, and to kill several police and military troops. And it is further true that this group is relatively tiny, whereas if the Mahdi Army really did launch a challenge to the government, it is not clear whether it could survive.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said that the clergyman may not extend the freeze on activities he imposed on his paramilitary, the Mahdi Army, late last summer. The spokesman, Salah al-Ubaidi, said that the group felt taken advantage of by government security forces, who have been arresting Mahdi Army leaders arbitrarily and with impunity. Al-Ubaidi implied that those doing the arresting consist of criminal gangs infiltrated into the national security forces. In essence, the threat to revive the Mahdi Army seems to be a bargaining chip in a drive to stop arrests of its leaders.
Finally, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim on Friday attacked the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, his supposed ally. He lamented that “personal whims” were getting in the way of progress. The NYT reports that al-Hakim is particularly upset that parliament has made little progress on crafting legislation on how Iraq’s oil wealth would be shared out among regions, and that it is dragging its feet on the holding of new provincial elections (these were last held in Jan. of 2005, and were supposed to be held again no later than June, 2006). I had assumed that the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) that al-Hakim leads was hostile to new provincial elections. The Sadr movement seems to have been spreading politically in recent years, and it might be able to win in a fair election. But the Saudi royal family must have something else in mind.