In a Land Without Order, Punishment Is Power

(By Anthony Shadid -- The Washington Post)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 22, 2006

YUSUFAN, Iraq -- A year or so ago, just one poster adorned Sheik Adnan Aidani's wall. It was a portrait of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's faded but still preeminent cleric, whose stern visage glared down on visitors to the tribal sheik's house along a forest of date palms in the southern Iraqi countryside. Today, there are perhaps a dozen posters with new faces. The names blur, but together they represent the power, beyond appeal, of men with guns.

Aidani smiled, a little sheepishly, as he surveyed the posters. Gifts, he called them, the kind you don't return.

"Everyone's on his own," he explained.

Far from the killing fields of the capital, Baghdad, and a half-hour drive from the southern city of Basra, which has been racked by thousands of assassinations, Aidani has an unenviable task in his warren of mud brick, cinder block and concrete: keeping order in a land without it, where society is fracturing, crumbling, even disintegrating.

There is a saying in southern Iraq today, "No one pays respect to the saint who won't mete out punishment." Violence is the cadence of the country. To navigate the chaos, Aidani tries to draw on centuries-old traditions honed by Bedouins in the desert, rules built on honor, respect and reciprocity. He relies on the intimacy of a village where every neighbor knows the other. But in the end, the threat of punishment secures respect for Aidani. That same threat gives power to militias, gangs and criminals who now hold sway even in the streets of a village like Yusufan.

The brutality of today's Iraq has washed over his largely Shiite village of 4,000: In the past few months, 10 people have been killed in Yusufan. Among them were a mother and child. "Who knows?" he said when asked the reason. In Basra, and even more in Baghdad, governments are sources of gossip rather than confidence. The police, who he said never set foot here, are best at taking bribes.

A division of Iraq is sometimes offered as a way to end the country's sectarian strife, but that glosses over the bitter and bloody fights that torment Basra and other predominantly Shiite regions in the south. With fewer sectarian fault lines, there is less killing in Basra than in Baghdad; residents, a little bitterly, insist it is just more organized, as the various Shiite factions battle for money and power. And the sheik, now more than ever, finds himself buffeted by the building squall.

"Who knows?" he asked again, almost rhetorically.

"These days, life is like a jungle. A rabbit doesn't survive in a jungle. Only a lion does."

He turned more literal. Anarchy, the sheik said. "Actually, it's a little worse than anarchy."

A Judge of the Streets

It was Ramadan, the sacred month when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. Forgoing tea, cigarettes and food had darkened the sheik's mood. So had the news he received that morning. Four days earlier, gunmen had attacked six Shiite Muslims from his village at a bakery on the outskirts of Baghdad. Sitar Yusuf Zaalan, his three sons and two nephews survived the initial assault, only to be killed when the gunmen returned a little later and, from their car, tossed a bomb inside the bakery.

They weren't even that devout, he said. "They were just Shiites by name, just by their identity card."

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