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new ‘locals only’ political group in karbala not racist, founders say

Mohammed Hamid al-Sawaf
Karbala has drawn many migrants to its safe and prosperous streets in the recent past. But now locals, who say newcomers are ruining their way of life, are forming a political party to look after their own interests.
26.07.2012  |  Amman

Over the past three decades the prosperous and relatively secure central Iraqi city of Karbala has seen wave after wave of immigrants resettle there. And the locals of Karbala have increasingly started to feel marginalized by the newcomers who, they say, are dominating local politics.

As a result, a group of Karbala locals has decided to form a political group to represent themselves. Directly translated from Arabic, the group is called the Karbala Householders Group. But a better translation might be the Karbala Community Initiative - because the mostly Shiite Muslim group of younger Karbala locals believe the identity of their city is under threat and that their voices have been marginalized in political debate here over the past few years.

“The people of Karbala have not been given the opportunity to participate in political, social and service-related issues pertaining to their province,” Ali al-Nawab, a human rights activist and a supporter of the new group, says. “And while most of the people of Karbala want to get involved in the administration of their city, they are not well organized enough as a group to achieve this.”

Because of the city’s environment – it is a prosperous metropolis, with job opportunities in agriculture and tourism (Karbala is one of the holiest cities in the world for Shiite Muslims and draws millions of tourists annually to shrines and other sites) and also, relatively speaking, a secure city – it has drawn Iraqis from many other less fortunate cities.

The last official statistics on Karbala’s population indicate that the city’s population sits at around 1.5 million. It is estimated that Karbala locals make up less than half of that number.

“We feel like strangers in our own city,” a Karbala retailer, Ahmad Abdul-Hussein, commented. “And we feel as though Karbala is losing its culture and its heritage. There are new behaviours here and strange practices – for instance, those involving how women are veiled.”

Abdul-Hussein is passionate about the creation of political group just for Karbala locals. “The city is known for its tolerance and modesty,” he says. “It is known for its people and the way they deal with others. And this urbane culture is fading as more rural and tribal traditions start to dominate. That’s why we need to create a popular movement, one that can bolster the indigenous people’s identity here and allow them to manage their own affairs.”

Karbala has seen several waves of immigration over the past few decades. Other Iraqis have been driven into the city by such incidents as former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s draining of the southern marshes and persecution of those living there in the 1990s; forced from their homes and jobs, many ended up in Karbala.

During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Karbala was a safe haven for those fleeing the southern city of Basra, which was being shelled at the time. And the third wave of immigration came around 2006 and 2007 when Iraqis left their home states for Karbala because of deadly sectarian violence in other parts of the country.

The Karbala authorities quickly came to realise that the city’s infrastructure couldn’t accommodate many more people and they have even offered each Iraqi family IQD4 million (around US$2,800) if they would return to their home states.

However hardly anyone took up that offer. Local sociologist, Abdul Karim al-Amiri, says immigrants have become used to the good life in Karbala. “Karbala is a very special city,” al-Amiri says. “It has a good climate, good crop and religious tourism, which offers a lot of employment opportunities.”

Hence the Karbala Community Initiative. This group now plans to take part in the upcoming provincial elections, scheduled for January 2013. The party’s candidates may only be locals – their father and grandfather must have been born in Karbala.

“People from other provinces are now dominating key positions and public institutions But we are educating the indigenous people to elect members from this list,” group member, Haj Ali al-Mustawfi, says. “We can’t change the realities in the city by being discontented and resentful. So we want to be active. Our people don’t get a lot of employment opportunities in government-funded jobs and it’s hard to find other employment.”

But the project was not racist or unnecessarily exclusionary, another group member Aysar al-Zaini, explained. “The group is not meant to target anybody; it was created simply to allow the people of Karbala a chance to administer their own affairs.”

Al-Zaini pointed out that the last lot of local elections had drawn only 18 percent of the local population to the polling booths. This was one of the reasons why outsiders had been able to gain control of the Karbala authorities. And the Karbala Community Initiative’s plan was to encourage more locals to vote, and to support other locals.

“We just want to organize the city’s affairs in a way that serves the interests of everyone here,” al-Zaini noted. “Our city’s doors are open to all people.”