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Preaching the Rule of Law in a Tribal Land

"Our soil is the land of Iraq," said Haithem Rissan, the head of the delegation.

Because they usually share the same socially conservative goals, the Islamic parties that run Basra are often grouped together in a way that conceals divisions based on history and loyalties. Musabah's Virtue Party, for example, is an offshoot of the movement led by the father of Moqtada Sadr, a young, stridently anti-American cleric whose militia twice fought U.S. forces last year. While Sadr caters to the street, the Virtue Party appeals to professionals and intellectuals.


Mohammed Musabah has been the governor of Basra for a month.

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The contest between the religious parties is fierce, far more intense than their struggle with secular groups. Musabah views the other Islamic parties as the biggest threat to his success, even if he refrains from lambasting them, as he did during the campaign.

"There are many other parties and movements trying to inflame the situation," he said on this day.

As in other cities in southern Iraq, the contest is usually fought within the security forces established during the past two years. Musabah estimates that 75 to 80 percent of Basra's policemen are loyal not to him but to the rival Islamic parties. In his first month, he has already fired the two most powerful police officials, both disciples of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a leading Shiite party.

"We represent the law," he told a delegation of three police officers that came next in his string of meetings. "We are legal. We are elected."

They complained that other officers were loyal to parties; they worried that the tribes ignored their authority.

"Just tell them the governor is your tribe," Musabah said.

A delegation of tribesmen followed, wearing the black checkered head scarves and robes of village elders. On one side was the aggrieved brother of a man killed at a wedding party four months ago by stray gunfire. On the other were two tribal sheiks trying to get him to relent in his demand that 17 people from the groom's family should move to another town as punishment.

Fists crashed on the arms of chairs. Fingers pointed. Shouts were interrupted by an occasional "Permit me to speak!" Sheik Ali Almerian, the short, wiry brother of the slain man, turned to the governor. "If you don't solve the problem," he said in rough, rural Arabic, "there will be more bloodshed!" There were more pleas for the man to relent. "Never! There is no negotiation!"

Musabah sat at his desk, quiet. The quarrel went on for a half-hour before he made a suggestion: Invite all the parties to the governor's office next week, and they will find a compromise.

A 'Son of Basra'

To many in Basra, Musabah remains an unknown quantity. So far, those who have met him say he is a good listener, someone who is upright and kind. The complaints are those heard often about the new generation of religiously oriented leaders in Basra: He is inexperienced and not highly educated. (He has a two-year associate degree as a surveyor.) The vocal secular element in the city worries that his moderate veneer conceals a more draconian conservatism.

"The election was excellent, but the result was bad," said Saleh Najim, the dean of Basra University's engineering college.

Musabah speaks little of religion. He said he no longer considered himself a member of the Virtue Party, but rather a "son of Basra." As for faith, he said, that was best left to others. "We will deal with everyone in the same spirit," he said. "Religious issues don't have anything to do with government affairs. This is the purview of the clerics."

His day neared an end, as trays of tea kept arriving. He secured a weapons permit for a Catholic priest and dealt with contractors struggling with Basra's collapsing sewage system. The foremen of a state-owned ironworks pleaded for money to restart their factory. A local cleric asked whether funds were available to rebuild a neighborhood mosque. Musabah's secretary, Furat Salih, brought in a handwritten piece of paper that documented faltering electricity production in Basra, a report he receives daily.

A delegation of utility workers soon arrived. Its members were flustered and a little cynical. Hours-long blackouts are perhaps the biggest complaint among Basra residents, and the workers said they were at wit's end. Their equipment was 25 years old. Solutions, they said, remained merely ink on paper.

"We're suffering, and we'll suffer especially this summer. We have no spare parts and no generators," said Maytham Wasfi, the assistant general director for power distribution in southern Iraq. "Electricity is just worn out, especially in the south."

Musabah winced, then tried to reassure them.

"We're going to be very frank with the masses," he said.


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