By Joshua Partlow and Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 7, 2007
BAGHDAD, Oct. 6 -- Iraq's most powerful Shiite militia planned and carried out a bloody attack on two of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines in the southern city of Karbala in late August, violence that exposed deep divisions within the Shiite community, according to documents, police and lawmakers involved in investigating the violence.
The fallout from the attack could further splinter Iraq's ruling political alliance and diminish U.S. prospects for bringing stability to Iraq. It also raises troubling questions about the complicity of Iraqi officials with violent militiamen.
The street fighting that broke out in Karbala on Aug. 28 demonstrated that while an escalation of U.S. troops has lessened violence in Baghdad and western Iraq, another conflict is brewing in the south. With British soldiers accelerating their departure from the region, the south is emerging as one of the most vulnerable regions of Iraq.
The battle that day was instigated by members of the Mahdi Army, the militia led by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, when its gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades and rifles from neighboring rooftops down into a crowd of thousands of pilgrims who had gathered between the Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas shrines, according to Karbala police investigative documents and Iraqi officials. Government officials loyal to Sadr and Mahdi Army members denied they were responsible for the violence.
More than 50 people were killed and hundreds were wounded when gunfire, mortar shells and grenades exploded amid the worshipers, who were celebrating the birthday of a Shiite religious icon. It was one of the deadliest days of Shiite-on-Shiite violence of the war.
But the trauma transcended the death toll, exposing deep rivalries among police, militiamen, religious leaders and the politicians vying for supremacy. More than 580 suspects were rounded up. The killings sparked Sadr's public decision to freeze Mahdi Army operations -- a position welcomed by U.S. military commanders.
The details of the violence that day were contested from the beginning. Witnesses described it as clashes between the Mahdi Army and shrine guards, believed to be loyal to the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a prominent Shiite political party. The Badr group also denied it was to blame.
On Saturday, in an apparent attempt to calm the Shiite south, the leaders of the two militias, Sadr and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, signed a peace agreement and pledged to work together to avoid bloodshed and confrontation. The document, shown on Iraqi television, stated the need for "protecting and respecting Iraqi blood regardless of the situation or sect," as well as maintaining "friendly feelings and to avoid hatred."
Liwa Smaysim, a top political aide to Sadr, said the pact involved creating joint committees to mediate disputes. The Muslim holy month of Ramadan, typically a time for forgiving grievances, played a role in the timing of the pact, he said.
Still, tensions remain high, and the peace, if it exists, fragile. Senior Mahdi Army commanders have complained that their followers have been unfairly targeted in raids and arrests since the violence in August.
"There is no doubt there is a huge pressure on our popular base, so we are trying as best as we can to stop the reactions," Smaysim said. "These arrests were done for political reasons, not for criminal reasons."
The Iraqi government has formed a committee, led by lawmaker Mithal Alousi, to investigate the Karbala violence. The committee has not finished its work, but Alousi said that the Mahdi Army appears to bear most of the responsibility for the attack but that other factions were also involved. The loyalties of security forces in Karbala, including the police, are divided among the Badr Organization, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party and various Shiite religious leaders, and some push an agenda to seize influence from the Sadr faction, Alousi said.
"I think the JAM has organized the action. They are the main part of the action," Alousi said, using an acronym for Jaish al-Mahdi, the Arabic name for the Mahdi Army. "Others are now using the Karbala problem, which JAM created, to take more political power, and this is bad."
Alousi's committee has made trips to Karbala and reviewed detainee testimony and investigative documents. One such investigative memorandum, obtained by The Washington Post, was drafted by Karbala's police chief, based on testimony from detainee Ali Dahi. Alousi said the contents of the memo as described to him reflect the reality of the situation.
Dahi placed the blame on Mahdi Army fighters intent on expanding power by taking over the two shrines. He said a Mahdi Army company commander visited him before the violence broke out, according to the memo, which was forwarded to top Interior Ministry officials.
Dahi was told: "There will be riots in the area between the two shrines, and these events will be carried out by members of the Mahdi Army to control those two shrines," the memo states. "They all gathered at the martyr Sadr office waiting for orders to attack the area and to take over the two imams' shrines."
"They were carrying heavy sticks and were throwing rocks at the outer wall of the shrine and chanting inside the office: 'We are your soldiers, Sayeed,' and 'Martyrdom with you Sayeed Moqtada,' " the memo went on, using the honorific signifying descent from the prophet Muhammad. "Then orders were given to them to attack."
The document is based on the statement of the one detainee, Dahi, and his political affiliation or agenda are unclear. The memo says the statements were ratified by the investigation committee.
The chief spokesman of the Karbala police, Rahim Imshawer, confirmed the memorandum's contents. "It's true, it was his confession," he said. "This is a very confidential memo. I don't know how this memo leaked out."
During the fighting, Mahdi Army gunmen climbed to rooftops overlooking the shrines and fired down into the crowd, sparking retaliatory shooting from shrine guards, according to documents and Iraqi officials. Some militiamen distributed gasoline canisters and set fire to festival tents, vehicles and buildings.
The Karbala police memo also alleges that Juwad al-Hasnawi, the province's deputy governor, visited the Sadr office on the eve of the attack and that his bodyguards unloaded boxes of ammunition at the office. Hamid Ganoosh, a member of the provincial council, was also alleged to have been involved in the violence. Arrest warrants were issued for both men.
After the shootout, Hasnawi and Ganoosh were detained, according to the head of the Karbala provincial council, Abdul Aal al-Yasiri.
"We support Iraqi law, and these warrants are legal, but we asked the prime minister for an explanation about detaining Juwad al-Hasnawi and Hamid Ganoosh. Until now, we've had no reply," Yasiri said.
A senior Mahdi Army commander in Karbala, Qais al-Karbali, said his militia and the two government officials are innocent of instigating the violence and blamed the rival Badr Organization.
"There is no evidence against the Sadr movement," he said. "The people who started it are linked to the Supreme Council, who are linked to Iranian intelligence. They get their salaries from Iran. Their homes are in Iran."
A preliminary draft of the parliament committee's findings, made available to The Post, avoids naming those considered responsible. The report found that the shooting initially "came from the roofs of the high hotels and buildings, not from the holy shrine security force," but that it resulted in a "huge exchange of fire" between the two sides.
The situation deteriorated when the crowd of pilgrims, mostly young men, broke into mob violence. The report describes a poorly trained, underarmed security force that failed to communicate well with its leaders, police and military officials in Baghdad and that was incapable of protecting the pilgrims.
It took about nine hours for Iraqi army reinforcements in Baghdad to reach Karbala, a 60-mile journey. About 1,000 police officers were guarding the shrines, but only 360 of them were armed, the report said.
"The committee is assured of the necessity to strengthen the role of the legal and security forces, to dissolve all the militias and prohibit carrying weapons outside the law," the report said.
Special correspondents Zaid Sabah and Dalya Hassan in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.