washingtonpost.com
In a Land Without Order, Punishment Is Power
Conflicts Among Shiites Challenge a Village Sheik in Southern Iraq

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."

He shook his head. "No one asks any questions about the crimes."

Aidani is 52, father of 12 children born to two wives, and sheik for two years with a genealogy that traces back 33 generations. He still sometimes carries the bearing of his days as an employee at the South Oil Co. in Basra: an understated delivery and a bureaucrat's weary patience. Other times, his voice thunders. His writ stretches, with varying influence, through the village, which sits along the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates known as the Shatt al Arab, in a region famed for poets and dates.

On this morning, as on others, the sheik negotiated disputes he estimates have increased 200 percent over the past year, from the frivolous to the serious. There was the story of the mouse. It scurried into a neighbor's home, frightening a girl. Her family demanded arbitration and, to keep the peace, the other family agreed to pay compensation. Days later, her family saw the neighbor's mouse again. They killed it. "That mouse was ours," the sheik recalled the neighbors arguing. And, this time, they demanded compensation.

"I have one even funnier than that," the sheik said.

A driver killed a chicken on the road. Without making excuses, he said he was willing to pay the price of the chicken.

"It's not the chicken that's the problem," the sheik recalled its owner arguing. "The problem is with its orphans."

"And what about the rooster?" he recalled another person asking.

That dispute was settled with $20.

"People around Basra are not afraid of anything," said Sayyid Suleiman al-Musawi, another tribal leader who was visiting the sheik. Tall, with a black head scarf, he had a sense of irony. "If there's a problem, they go straight to their house and get the gun."

The week before, he recalled, there was an argument at a fruit stand near Yusufan. A customer insisted the vendor cut open the watermelon before he bought it. It was still white inside, and he declared that it was not yet ripe. No, it's red, the vendor insisted. They argued, the customer left and then returned with 30 men. Musawi said a gunfight erupted. Unbelievably, no one was killed.

"Thirty guns because a watermelon wasn't ripe," Musawi said ruefully.

"In Iraq, our blood is very hot," he added. "No one speaks slowly here."

The sheik and Musawi lamented the chaos, each complaint growing in exasperation. Their anger was directed everywhere -- at Shiite militias whose men often wear police uniforms, at a national government beholden to Americans and sharing power with Sunni politicians "building car bombs in their houses," at their own people, who they maintained don't understand the word hesitation, and at Sunnis who, the sheik insisted with wide eyes, cannot sleep with their wives as long as Shiites are in power.

"You cannot rule people without a big stick," Musawi insisted. "No one cares anymore, because no one is punished."

Still gloomy, the sheik shrugged his shoulders. Optimistic?

"With all this killing in the streets?" he asked. "Every day is worse than the day before."

Fragmented Authority

The posters on the sheik's wall represent the forces in Basra and his region -- the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the splintered Dawa party and the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr, whose followers regularly attack British troops patrolling Basra. As it has for years now, often still functioning as a clandestine force, the Supreme Council focuses on the instruments of government power -- the police, provincial council and intelligence service in Basra. Sadr and his unruly force have the streets.

But even the Sadrists are divided. The Mahdi Army is perhaps the most powerful in places like Basra and Nasiriyah. But it contends with breakaway factions -- Fadhila, whose representative serves as Basra's governor; followers loyal to Mahmoud Hassani; and another group known as the Movement of Rebels of the Intifada. They sometimes cooperate, more often not.

In all, residents estimate there are about 19 Islamic parties in the region around Basra, each with armed followers.

"Each head of the militia is his own dictator. This is the reality," said Sayyid Abdel-Aal al-Musawi, a 46-year-old cleric whose father heads an influential but apolitical Shiite sect known as the Shaikhiya. "They don't adhere to any limits."

In Basra, anywhere from a few to two dozen people are killed on most days -- clerics, former Baathists, Sunni Muslims, rivals and many for reasons no one quite understands. The same goes for Yusufan. The sheik listed those killed: an official with the Ministry of Health who was kidnapped and whose body was found in a Sadrist stronghold; a fruit vendor; a cattle salesman suspected of being a Baathist. A little while ago, a lawyer was shot in the leg from a passing car. The gunmen got out and then shot him in the head.

"People are cheap," the sheik said. "After they kill, they walk with their weapons back to the police station."

"No one will ask anything," he added.

There is no real government in Yusufan, bisected by a canal overgrown with weeds and overrun with trash.

The sheik has his authority, backed by what he says are the hundreds of armed men he can cull from the tribe's 12,000 members. But in a sign of his curtailed reach, he twice failed to get elected to parliament, and villagers sometimes treat him as just another player.

Militiamen rarely roam with their weapons through the narrow dirt roads bordered by dried palm fronds, cattails, bougainvillea and fields of clover. But everyone knows who they are, and their graffiti clutter the walls. "Long live Moqtada," one slogan reads. "All of us will sacrifice to defend Sadr," another declares. In green is written, "Yes, yes to Islam." Next to it in blue, a little out of place, is scrawled, "Long live Real," a show of support for the Spanish soccer team Real Madrid.

Authority, in a way, has atomized. Few go out after dark, when many feel militias are most active. Police never enter, so to protect religious celebrations at the Hajji Ahmed Husseiniya, a local worship hall, neighbors gather a dozen youths with their guns and post them at each end of the street.

When trouble arises, villagers say, they try to settle it themselves, then go the sheik, representatives of the Islamic parties or the town's part-time cleric. (Another alternative: "I'd run away," said Jalal Abdel-Amir, a 27-year-old villager.) Usually, they keep to themselves. With violence endemic, it is often heard that if it's not your neighbor, friend or family killed, you keep quiet.

"You can say that the people protect themselves," said Shihab Ahmed Allawi, a 35-year-old construction worker.

Down the street, a little way from the trash-strewn banks of the eddying Shatt al Arab, Kifah Mahmoud, a 47-year-old grocer, stood in a store adorned with portraits of Shiite clerics and named after the sword of a Shiite saint, Dhu al-Fiqar. It takes faith these days, he said. "You can't be sure you'll go somewhere and come back safely. You can't reassure yourself about that."

Serial Strife

In his tribal reception hall, near a television hooked to a satellite dish, the drone of the generator outside, Aidani bellowed into his cellphone. "He must bring the gun to us!" he shouted, flashing his more temperamental side.

The dispute had begun simply. The day before, Mahmoud Shaker, a 16-year-old from Aidani's tribe, was riding his bicycle laden with pots for iftar , the traditional meal that breaks the Ramadan fast. Someone cleaning part of a sidewalk sprayed water on him as he rode by. Shaker protested, and the man pulled a gun and pistol-whipped him. The sheik wanted a sit-down with the assailant's tribe.

"They have to be in our place within five days," he told the mediator.

He hung up the phone, his third call in 15 minutes. Each time, the tribe had refused to meet.

"They better come," the sheik said. "If they don't, I'll have something else to hold against them."

He leaned back on a cushion resting against a grimy wall, three fans overhead churning the hot air.

"Problems create problems, one becomes two," he said. "These kinds of things should be dealt with by the law."

A little later, Sheik Fawzi Kaabi entered. Everyone in the room stood. "Take your rest," Aidani said afterward.

Kaabi, a stout man in a head scarf checkered white and black, is 46, but said he should be 460: "Every year has become 10 years because of the problems." Kaabi, called "the judge" by a friend, had come to mediate another dispute.

Men from Aidani's tribe had killed three people from the Abadi, a neighboring tribe, although the circumstances were in dispute. A death these days costs between 20 million and 25 million Iraqi dinars, or $13,300 to $16,600. Each person in the tribe is expected to contribute, effectively an insurance policy. But Aidani was resisting, pleading his case that the neighboring tribe had refused to pay blood money earlier.

"We're on standby," the sheik warned, with the mildest bluster.

He said no more. Everyone understood it meant sending his armed men to settle it another way.

"It's like a serial," the sheik said after Kaabi left. "It never has an ending."

As he spoke, there was a hint of hesitation, even doubt in his voice. He ran through the conflicts he had to arbitrate: murder, theft, kidnapping, rape, broken contracts, land disputes and on and on. "There's nothing that's not present in Iraq anymore," he said. "Anything you can imagine in your head is here." In each, he had to negotiate, cajole and, more often than not, threaten.

Each time, the stakes seemed to be raised; each refusal drew a bigger warning.

"It wears me out," he admitted.

As he often does, the sheik spoke in proverbs. He uses one frequently these days. It is as much imperative as reality.

" Lil qawi ," he said. "To the strong."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company