By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 1, 2006
BAGHDAD, May 31 -- Alarmed by an explosion of crime and violence in the vital southern city of Basra, the Iraqi prime minister visited local leaders there on Wednesday, declared a state of emergency and warned that he would respond to security threats "with an iron hand."
The trip represented the first major effort by Iraq's new government to deal with the deteriorating situation in Basra, the linchpin of predominantly Shiite southern Iraq and a strategic site for the country's oil-driven economy. Speaking with unusual bluntness, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the politicians who traveled with him acknowledged a festering crisis in Iraq's second-largest city.
"What is with all these kidnappings, killings, and kidnapping gangs?" Maliki asked in a speech before hundreds of local leaders and military and police officers. "What is going on in this city, which has suffered through history? Tell us what you want. . . . We will be ready to support and back you up with all that we have in order to protect this city."
At a news conference after he met with local officials, Maliki promised a "large-scale security mobilization" and several measures to control violence, including creating more checkpoints and abolishing some tainted security agencies. He later formally declared a month-long state of emergency, television and news agencies reported.
Tariq al-Hashimi, one of Iraq's two vice presidents, said the government would form a security committee whose first goal would be to enforce a ban on unlicensed weapons in the hands of militias and tribal groups.
"Basra is not an exception to what is going in Baghdad, Anbar, Mosul and Diyala," Hashimi said, naming some of Iraq's most violent areas. "There are campaigns and intentions to split Iraqi ethnic groups in order to intensify the fight and divide the country. If we allowed that, it would be a huge danger to this country and all would regret it."
Despite a reputation for being calm, earned partly because there have been fewer attacks on foreign troops in Basra than in other parts of Iraq, the city has long been a tense area, with targeted killings and kidnappings taking the place of more spectacular public violence. Religious leaders have been unusually strict in imposing Islamic law, forbidding liquor, games and even riverside picnics.
In recent months, there have been open clashes among rival political groups, battles involving criminal gangs fighting for control of the lucrative oil smuggling business and, increasingly, attacks on some of the 7,200 British troops who patrol the region.
Reidar Visser, an Iraq analyst with the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs who edits historiae.org, a Web site that focuses on Basra and southern Iraq, said he believed the recent surge in violence was partly the result of an intensifying battle between two Shiite parties: the Fadhila Party, a powerful local group that dominates the provincial council, and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, which controls the Interior Ministry in Baghdad and thus influences the local police force.
"The conflict with SCIRI in Basra dates back to early 2005, when, after the local elections, Fadhila managed to sideline SCIRI in the local governorate council, by entering into coalition with smaller parties," Visser wrote in an e-mail. "At first, the tension was mainly fought out within the council. Then SCIRI boycotted the council for a while, and now it seems that the conflict has begun affecting the general security situation in Basra."
The situation took a sharp turn for the worse in May. Fadhila, a smaller party within Iraq's ruling Shiite alliance, withdrew from talks on the formation of the new government, apparently protesting a decision not to allow the party to continue controlling the Oil Ministry. The governor of Basra province, Mohammed al-Waeli, suspended the police chief, Maj. Gen. Hassan Suwadi and demanded he be fired, saying he was involved in criminal activities. A bomb exploded outside Suwadi's house in an apparent attempt to kill him. And nine British soldiers have died this month in three incidents, including the downing of a helicopter.
In a tense public meeting broadcast on national television, Maliki warned that he would respond with force to further problems.
"This visit is to meet you and visit the city and to work on what we hear of violations that we fear will increase," Maliki said. "We will announce, powerfully and frankly, that we will hit with an iron hand those gangs and those who interfere with security."
Basra is apparently the only city in Iraq where a formal state of emergency exists, though rampant violence affects many areas of the country.
At least 21 people were killed Wednesday in a mortar attack on a neighborhood in Baghdad and other attacks around Iraq, according to police sources and news reports.
The Reuters news agency also reported Wednesday night that 42 bodies had been discovered in Baghdad in the last 24 hours, citing Iraqi police sources. If the report is true, it would be the third consecutive day that more than 40 Iraqis have been killed.
Maliki's trip to Basra and the violence of the last few days have overshadowed the testimony of defense witnesses in the trial of former president Saddam Hussein and seven others over the killing of 148 people from the village of Dujail after a failed attempt on Hussein's life in 1982.
On Wednesday, Hussein's half brother Barzan al-Ibrahim, one of the co-defendants, was thrown out of the courtroom after an altercation with Judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman, who became upset when Ibrahim referred to Abdel-Rahman's Kurdish ethnicity.
Prosecutors also rebutted the defense team's argument the day before that the chief prosecutor, Jafar al-Mousawi, had attempted to recruit witnesses by offering bribes and false documents at a party in 2004.
The defense team claimed to have a picture of Mousawi at the party and displayed it before the court. It showed Mousawi, or at least a man who looked strikingly like him.
In response, Mousawi summoned a man identified as Abdul Aziz Mohammed al-Bender, who walked into the court wearing a brown suit. He could have been Mousawi's twin, except that he was slightly thinner and had a receding hairline. The court looked at the two men, standing side-by-side and then in profile. The picture was clearly of Bender.
Special correspondents Omar Fekeiki, Bassam Sebti, Salih Saif Aldin, Saad al-Izzi and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad, Hassan Shammari in Baqubah, Saad Sarhan in Najaf and a special correspondent in Basra contributed to this report.