Iraqis battle gangs in Basra

Likaa and Shamia Abdel-Karim considered themselves fortunate to have secured a job washing laundry at the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) headquarters here.

Yet, in this lawless city in southern Iraq, working for the coalition brings risks.

Two weeks ago, the two sisters caught their usual ride home with a family friend. As the car turned onto the bumpy rutted track leading into their run-down Shiite neighborhood, four masked gunmen forced them to stop. Likaa was told to get out of the car and lie on the ground. She was shot in the head point-blank. Shamia was shot where she sat in the rear seat.

"We don't know why they were killed," says Haidar Abdel-Karim, a brother of the victims. "They were normal girls - calm, kind, and never in any trouble." Iraqi police believe the girls were killed because of their employment with the coalition - the latest victims of a brutal mob law that has gripped this city.

The fledgling Iraqi police struggle to restore order to the city's chaotic streets, where Islamic parties, small militias, and ruthless criminal gangs hold sway. But the poorly equipped, undermanned, and demoralized police are no match for the gangs, many of which are protected by powerful tribes. They kidnap children, smuggle oil, and rob cars and trucks along the main highway from the Kuwaiti border.

"We need equipment - cars, weapons, ammunition, body armor, shields, helicopters," says Lieutenant Adel Ruhaina, a detective at the Old Basra police station. "All we have are our shirts and trousers."

Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, is controlled by the British component of the coalition forces. The insurgency here has not been as intense as that faced by US troops farther north, but the area remains volatile. British troops were attacked with petrol bombs and stones on Monday when a demonstration for jobs turned into a riot in support of assassinated Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. Fourteen British soldiers were injured.

The profusion of militias and street gangs brings its own problems. The CPA in Basra estimates about 150 militias and political parties operate in this mainly Shiite city of 1.3 million.

There are well-established groups such as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI); Iraqi Hizbullah; and the Movement of the Master Martyr, the local name given to the followers of the fiery cleric Muqtada Sadr. Then there are smaller militant groups such as Tharallah or the Revenge of God, the Islamic Talia Organization, and the Movement of the Rebels of the Shabaniyya Uprising. The bulk of the parties, say coalition officials, are criminal gangs or tiny militant Islamist groups.

"Very few of these groups have a worked-out agenda," says Dominic di Angelo, CPA spokesman in Basra. "Some of them are using the name of religious parties to extort money."

Some of the larger parties have taken on a social-welfare role, taking advantage of the poor civic services to build their support base. Sitting behind a desk in a smoke-filled room, Sheikh Abdel-Sittar al-Bahadli of Sadr's Movement of the Master Martyr listens patiently to petitions from locals. "When people hear that we have taken up an issue, they accept our judgment because they respect and love the martyr Sadr," he says, referring to Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, Muqtada Sadr's father who was assassinated by Hussein's regime in 1999.

Many of the political parties act as vigilantes - self-appointed guardians of a brutal street justice - tracking down former Baathists and foreign infiltrators bent on attacking Shiites. Last fall, Tharallah militiamen captured six insurgents who were allegedly preparing an attack on a Basra police station. The six confessed to a number of bombings, including the assassination of Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim, the SCIRI leader. Copies of the videotaped confessions were handed to the Monitor.

Sayyed Yussef al-Mussawi, the leader of Tharallah, says he kept the six men as prisoners in hopes of tracing the remaining plotters. But in early December, British troops arrested the six Baathist militants along with 13 members of Tharallah. The Tharallah activists were released the following day, but the Baathists apparently remain in custody.

"The British forces have caused this miserable security situation here," says Sayyed al-Mussawi. "So we have our own security system."

British coalition officials say that most of the Shiite political groups, including Tharallah, generally have behaved responsibly, and that the criminal gangs are the main problem. "We are slowly winning," says a British Army officer. "But we can't be everywhere at the same time."

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