The mild spring day in Karbala started well enough for Muhsen al-Saffar. But when he arrived at his business, things rapidly went downhill. The front window of his confectionery store had been shattered, there was glass everywhere. The culprit? A stun grenade.
Over the last few weeks there has been a rash of incidents featuring stun grenades. As manufactured weapons, stun grenades are meant to temporarily disorientate the victim, or victims, rather than injure. They use light and noise to do so and they are most commonly used, for instance, against protestors at demonstrations or by police in civilian situations. Usually stun grenades do not kill, although they can injure.
Current evidence suggests that the stun grenades being used in Karbala are different though; they appear to be locally made and some seem to contain real explosive material which could potentially injure bystanders.
Al-Saffar says he’s just thankful nobody was in the store when the stun grenade was detonated. According to al-Saffar, the stun grenade that wrecked his shop was not even intended for him; it was a message sent to politicians living in the same neighbourhood.
Stun grenades have not been used in Karbala before and locals are concerned. “People have started to worry and the state forces have tightened security – that upsets people even more,” al-Saffar said.
The central Iraqi city of Karbala is home to some of the most important religious landmarks in the world for Shiite Muslims – thousands of religious tourists are here at any given time. Generally it is considered one of the safest places in Iraq, after the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, and any security breaches are usually followed by strict security measures, often road closures, curfews and extra checkpoints. For al-Saffar and other merchants, who depend on the tourists to keep their businesses going, these measures are disruptive.
Al-Saffar and his neighbours believe the stun grenades are intended to deliver a new kind of message in Karbala. They’re a kind of “psychological warfare,” taxi driver Hashim Abdul-Hussein noted. “It’s part of the battle being fought by local politicians to get more power here. And meanwhile the people of Karbala are paying for it.”
The kinds of targets of stun grenade attacks seem to back up Abdul-Hussein’s theory. Stun grenades have been used on, or near, the homes and offices of government officials, MPs, religious leaders and members of political parties.
“The people behind these bomb attacks are corrupt,” the governor of Karbala province, Amaluddin al-Hir, said. “They want to scare people and the bombings also aim to obstruct the state’s work here.”
The first stun grenades were used almost six months ago but local police haven’t managed to figure out where the attacks are coming from yet. They have however managed to find an unexploded stun grenade - this gave them some further clues.
“Police found a stun grenade during a field inspection in the Hussein neighbourhood in the central city,” Ala al-Ghanimi, chief of Karbala police, said. “The grenade was locally manufactured,” he revealed.
Local human rights activist Adnan al-Salihi said he and many other locals believed the stun grenade attacks were politically motivated. “There have been no victims but the blasts are causing psychological damage,” al-Salihi said. “They should stop because they are just political messages. The attacks are causing panic and horror in Karbala,” he added.
As the attacks are happening in Karbala, a heavily Shiite Muslim town, it seems to be an indicator of Shiite versus Shiite conflict, rather than the usual style of sectarian conflict focussing on Shiite versus Sunni. In other words, some sort of internal conflict.
And stun grenades have been used increasingly in other parts of the country too. A series of attacks on politicians’ and clerics’ houses occurred in April 2012 in the city of Basra, further south; once again though, no people were injured and the damages were limited to property.
Popular perception puts at least some of the blame on the followers of the radical Shiite cleric, Mahmoud al-Sarkhi. Over the past few months, tensions between the followers of al-Sarkhi – who is considered controversial because of his belief that he is more senior, spiritually, then the highest religious authority for Shiite Muslims in Iraq, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – and other Shiite Muslims have been growing. In late April, there were a variety of disturbances that saw protests and some al-Sarkhi-dominated mosques burned.
And one may assume that the local Shiite-led government – especially that in a religious hotspot like Karbala – would support the highest Shiite religious authority in the land.
Apparently, according to some sources, local police have been targeting al-Sarkhi’s followers in order to find out where the stun grenades are coming from. However these operations have not been particularly successful.