Iraq's simmering south

Three cities, one Iraq

Monday the Monitor begins a three-part series that examines initial US efforts to transfer power at the grass-roots to Iraqis. US commanders, virtually alone in overseeing vast regions of Iraq, have pushed for at least superficial local empowerment as vital to stability. They have often forged ahead of civilian occupation authorities in Baghdad, resisting top-down mandates in favor of pragmatic problem solving from below. Yet so far steps toward Iraqi self-defense and self-rule remain fitful and tentative, hampered by mutual misunderstanding, resentment, and mistrust.

The series is based on scores of interviews conducted in July and August in three distinct regions: the Shiite-dominated south; the ethnically mixed crossroads of northern Iraq; and the Sunni strongholds of central Iraq. In each, the Monitor focuses on different problems: In the south, searching for common ground between conservative Shiite factions, Iraqi civil authorities, and US-led military forces. In the north, forging a new Iraqi defense force out of Iraq's broken, demoralized Army, and laying the building blocks for representative government. In central Iraq, sorting out the influential groups from the old regime - as well as establishing effective police and court systems.

KARBALA, IRAQ - Night was falling swiftly over the golden domes of this Shiite holy city when US soldiers manning the main police station received an urgent call: A robbery and stabbing had stirred trouble outside the Imam Hussein Mosque, and the newly trained Iraqi police needed backup.

The Americans knew the mosque area was off-limits to their troops - so did the thieves, arms merchants, and drug dealers who frequented the surrounding marketplace. Still, the situation sounded dire, so they dispatched a dozen US military police in four Humvees.

As the American MPs neared the mosque, which was thronged with evening worshipers, some Iraqis began shouting at them to leave. Rumors spread that the soldiers would violate the holy shrine. A hostile crowd of hundreds began pelting the Americans with rocks and bricks, denting the Humvees and smashing their windshields. Meanwhile, the 70 Iraqi police fled the scene on foot.

Surrounded in their vehicles, the MPs attempted to back down the street. They were still inching backwards, the soldiers say, when two Iraqis from the crowd opened fire and hit one MP, Staff Sgt. Carlos Lopez, in his right middle finger. Sergeant Lopez managed to shoot back with his pistol, killing the gunman. Firing into the air with a machine gun to keep the crowd at bay, the soldiers finally turned the Humvees and withdrew. At least one other Iraqi was wounded in the fray.

"It could have been a real bloodbath," says Capt. Leo Merck of the Army National Guard's 870th Military Police Company, which responded to the call in late July. Days of violent anti-US protests followed. Men slashing themselves with swords and wearing black suicide bomber vests marched through Karbala, long considered one of the most peaceful cities in postwar Iraq.

The Karbala incident is one of many that demonstrate the fragility of the US-led occupation in Iraq. Five months after the fall of Baghdad, American and other foreign troops, along with the fledgling Iraqi security forces and local leadership they installed, are struggling to restore order in the swirling power void left by Saddam Hussein's collapsed dictatorship.

Indeed, the relative quiet of the south, dominated by Shiite Muslims who make up 60 percent of Iraq's population, belies stubborn challenges for coalition forces trying to promote self-governance. Here, powerful yet rivalrous Shiite clerics are divided whether to support the coalition and the interim Iraqi authorities it has installed. The clerics, some linked to Shiite Iran, have tense relations with the Sunni sects of Iraq, a division that further complicates the road to self-rule. A recent spate of assassinations and attempted killings of Shiite leaders has intensified frustration here and prompted calls for revenge.

As one drives down Highway 8 past date palms and overgrown canals toward Karbala in south-central Iraq, the tension of Baghdad 60 miles north seems to evaporate in a dry, hot breeze.

US troops wearing caps instead of helmets appear relaxed as they stand in clear view of roads with passing traffic. With attacks on coalition forces here unusual, sandbags are not stacked as high or deep as they are at the gates of military camps further north. Iraqi women cloaked in black abayas and men in long tunics fill the squares and markets.

A glance around the streets explains one reason for the surface calm in this city of 500,000, home to predominantly Shiite Muslims. Whole walls are covered with death notices - large, black cloths that billow in the breeze. "The Americans took the nightmare from us," says Abdul Kadem Dhem Sahib Al Jubouri, a Karbala city councilman.

The war ended years of persecution by the Baath Party here, allowing an immediate resurgence of Shiite religious authority. Pilgrims flocked to long-banned festivals. Clerics spoke their minds. Shiite security forces sprung up to enforce Islamic law in Karbala, the holy city of Najaf 50 miles further south, and other cities.

"The city was inherently stable when we got here due to the presence of the Hawza [Shiite authority], which dictates the rules of daily living. It has a calming influence," says Marine Lt. Col. Chris Conlin. Stationed in Najaf, a city of 800,000, and Karbala since April, the Marines have helped create city councils, and trained hundreds of policemen.

Yet if Iraq's conservative Shiites share with US forces a common enemy in Mr. Hussein, much about their respective cultures divides them. Indeed, as Shiite clerics flex their newfound muscle, compete for power, and seek to broaden the reach of their strict religious doctrine, conflicts with Americans are flaring over issues large and small.

US Marines in Karbala and Najaf outraged the local population, for instance, by stepping on the heads of Iraqis they were restraining. "Anyplace else that's not an issue. Here, it's a horrible insult," says Colonel Conlin, who retrained his marines not to use the martial arts move.

In Najaf, US-sponsored TV broadcasts raised eyebrows because they showed women's bare shoulders. Programs acceptable in Baghdad proved too risqué further south. "At first we took the Hugh Hefner approach: 'If you don't like it, don't watch it.' That didn't go over very well," says Conlin, who is trying to secure a separate channel for Najaf.

In Karbala, the city council balked when US forces pressured it to include two female members. "That was too much for us, and we didn't agree," says Abdul Azzez, deputy governor of Karbala Province.

By far the worst conflicts, however, have involved US forces in proximity to mosques or religious figures in Karbala and Najaf, holy cities where famous Shiite imams are buried. Such incidents - real or perceived - have sparked massive protests against the US presence, creating opportunities for anticoalition forces.

"American soldiers transgressed our holy soil!" shouts Iraq's most vehemently anti-US Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, at a Friday sermon in Kufa, neighboring Najaf, in August. "Fight the American Army" and gain rewards in heaven, he urges.

"No to the invaders!" chant thousands of Iraqi followers, sitting on prayer rugs in the mosque's dusty inner courtyard. After the sermon, Mr. Sadr speeds away in a Mercedes Benz, accompanied by a phalanx of bodyguards carrying AK-47s. Outside the mosque, his supporters sell newspapers calling on Iraqis to expel US forces.

"The US should hand Iraq over to the Hawza and leave peacefully," said Hussein al-Sabaly, holding Sadr's photograph over his chest. Like Sadr, he rejects the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council as illegitimate.

Ignoring such demands, US commanders have moved to marginalize Sadr and limit the extrajudicial power of religious militia to impose conservative Shiite dictates. Meanwhile, they have worked to shore up local civilian governments and reach out to more moderate Shiites who reject Sadr's extremist tactics and accept the US presence.

This summer, for example, marines in Karbala officially disbanded the Hawza's 200-strong Karbala Protective Force (KPF) after it began beating and arresting people - including couples caught holding hands outside the mosque - without turning them over to the city police. Some of the mosque militia resisted and remains active.

"The Hawza beat me with a wooden stick," says Nidhal Bader, a tear running down her sallow cheek onto her black robe. "They called me a pimp bringing prostitutes to the Americans," says Ms. Bader, who works at the Karbala police station searching detained females.

Yet even moderate Shiites disagreed with US efforts to ban forces such as the KPF. "The KPF was keeping security but the Americans didn't allow it, so the lack of control started," says Mr. Azzez, complaining that drugs, arms dealing, and pornography are infesting Karbala.

The upsurge of crime around mosques revealed a clear security gap, posing a dilemma for Shiite clerics, US forces, and local police. In a breakthrough in Karbala in early August, all three groups agreed on a joint operation to sweep out criminals. Hundreds of city police armed with AK-47s and mosque enforcers carrying sticks flooded the plaza around the Imam Abbas Mosque before the market opened, tearing down illegal stalls. US troops stayed at the perimeter, searching incoming vehicles for guns and other contraband.

The Karbala operation was at least a temporary success, but the vulnerabilities at other mosques persisted - culminating in the massive car bombing that rocked the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf on August 29. The Najaf attack came despite US intelligence warnings that Hussein loyalists or Sunni extremists were planning a terrorist strike at a Najaf shrine. For weeks before the blast, Marines searched hundreds of busloads of worshipers heading to Friday prayers at Najaf.

The explosion killed more than 100 people, including a moderate Shiite cleric supporting the coalition, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim. Immediately, the black-uniformed Badr Brigade militia linked to Hakim started patrolling shrines in Najaf, but again the marines ordered them to disband. Stepping into the dispute, Iraq's interim governing council this month called on local authorities to create regional security forces to protect the mosques.

US commanders say unless Shiite clerics denounce all violence, including any against coalition forces, instability will persist. "This will continue as long as the people of Iraq tolerate it - it will be a long- term problem and will hurt the progress they've made so far," says Lt. Col. Matt Lopez, a marine based in Karbala.

Today, friction remains high. Indeed, the arrival in the south of a 9,000-strong Polish-led multinational division to replace US marines is complicating the security picture by worsening language barriers and chain-of-command problems.

Earlier this month, hundreds of Iraqis, some brandishing swords, surrounded US MPs at the Karbala station after the soldiers disarmed the guards of a local cleric. Iraqi police stood aside. Polish-led Bulgarian troops arrived late. By the end of the seven-hour protest, three Iraqis had been shot to death by the Americans.

"Unfortunately, it turned for the worse," says Lt. Joseph La Jeunesse of the 870th Military Police.

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