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The Return of the Gun

Saleem al-Wazzan
Not long after the dust storm created by military operations in Basra last March, assassinations and kidnappings in the southern city have started to flourish once more. Today residents are increasingly fearful…
2.09.2008  |  Basra

In the city centre, under an intensive security presence, gunmen on a motorcycle recently shot dead a university student working as a hairdresser. Observers say the incident is a further indicator of the return of extremist groups who have long targeted hairdressers on the basis of wanting to close down the beauty business which is perceived to be immoral.

Eye witnesses told Niqash that the gunmen actually stopped just a few meters away from the killing when their motorcycle broke down but that security forces did not arrest them. Police officials said that the crime zone was not under their control. The same justification was given when another patrol in al-Ashar failed to arrest the murderers of sheikh Salem al-Darraji, spokesman for the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), who recently criticized Basra officials on television.

As the number of killings in Basra increases, officials are refusing to reveal the exact number of dead, supposedly on “strict orders issued by Basra's operational command.”

Brigadier Muhammad Jawad Huwaidi, Basra’s Operation Commander, says that political tension before the forthcoming provincial council elections and tribal conflicts are to blame for the upturn in violence. However, other observers say that March’s Knights Assault Operation created a new hierarchy of winners and losers, prompting new violence as groups and individuals seek to reassert or cement their positions.

Among the victims of the military operation was the Sadr movement which suffered at the hands of Nouri al-Maliki and his troops. In this context, observers say that the group may now have regained strength in preparation for retaliation. According to this view, al-Sadr’s decision to form an elite group of ‘special troops’ to fight US occupation aims at destabilizing the situation, although al-Sadr has declared that civilians will not be targeted.

Observers add that al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army will probably focus its efforts against the dominant powers such as the Prime Minister’s Dawa Party and the Supreme Islamic Council, which controls security and intelligence agencies and which has played an effective role in providing information on Mahdi Army members.

According to Dr. Hamid Al-Rubaie, professor of political science at Basra University, “the Sadr movement, despite the assault, still attracts young people from among the marginalized and unemployed, from among the discontented because of deteriorating conditions, as well from among those who oppose the government and the occupation.” Al-Rubaie says the Sadr movement is still a very powerful force in Basra, waiting to reassert itself. Meanwhile, an informed source at Basra’s provincial council said that Mahdi Army members have one again established an armed presence in a number of neighborhoods.

Members of the National Reconciliation Movement in Basra confirm this analysis.According to one anonymous source, the movement changed its tactics as a result of the government’s military operation last March, “using hit-and-run rather than direct confrontation.” While the movement was “thrown out of the door, it is now returning back through the window,” said the source.

At the same time other groups targeted by government forces are also continuing to practice their activities in secret. Groups such as Tha’rullah Movement (God’s revenge) and Jund al-Sama’ (Army of Heaven) remain active and are posing an extra security burden. On August 17, armed men killed Mu’ath Waheeb Abdullah, director of the electoral center of al-Hassan al-Basri school, and his assistant in the al-Bahadriyah area.

Despite “deceptive stability” feelings associated with the army deployment in Basra, many doubt that their city is experiencing real security and stability. People are still awaiting the many committees promised by al-Maliki to restore normal life in the city, such as a special complaints committee for issues related to security and public services.

One notable case in Basra today, illustrating the continued problems in the city related to the security services, is the 2007 kidnapping of nuclear scientist Haytham Audeh. His wife says that she actually saw one of his kidnappers working within the security services but that her subsequent complaints to official departments have not been acted upon. Furthermore, she says that since operation Knights Assault nothing has improved. “When al-Maliki launched his Knights Assault Operation, I submitted another complaint to the security forces but I was surprised when the lawyer handling the case apologized after receiving a number of calls asking him to quit the case.” For this women, like many others in Basra today, hope remains a distant dream.