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Iraq: Washington Arrests U.S.-Appointed Mayor Of Al-Najaf For Abuse Of Power

  • Charles Recknagel

Washington this week removed the controversial U.S.-appointed mayor of Al-Najaf after an Iraqi judge charged him with abuse of power, including intimidating other government officials for financial gain. The arrest highlights an increasing readiness by U.S. and British forces to abandon the local powerbrokers they themselves put in place when they prove too unpopular or dishonest to do their jobs.

Prague, 1 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. officials in Iraq have not given many details as to why they arrested Al-Najaf Mayor Abdul Munim Abud, locally known as Abu Haydar, except to say he is guilty of misuse of power.

A spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) told reporters after the U.S.-appointed mayor was detained yesterday that he would be charged with pressuring government officials to commit financial crimes, attacking a bank official, and theft. He is also accused of kidnapping. The mayor was detained along with 61 members of his entourage.

The unidentified CPA spokesmen told Reuters that -- given the mayor's behavior -- it was, "clearly a mistake to appoint him." He also said such developments were to be expected as some people handed power by Washington may prove unsuitable to the job. As the spokesman expressed it, "We've said all along we would make mistakes in this process."

Correspondents say that Abud was a controversial figure for many people in Al-Najaf from the moment of his appointment in early May. A former colonel in the Iraqi army, he is a Sunni Muslim in a city that is a leadership center for the Shi'ite community, which makes up some 60 percent of Iraq's population.

Mohamed-Ali Haidari, a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq, has been closely following the situation in Al-Najaf. He says people in Al-Najaf resented Abud's appointment because he was seen as an outsider with no connection to the city.

"[Al-]Najafi people weren't happy with his appointment two months ago. The first reason for this unhappiness was because he is Sunni, not Shi'ite, and Al-Najaf is one of the holy cities for the Shi'ite in Iraq and the whole world. And people there were expecting that someone from their city would be their mayor. So they were very disappointed when the [U.S.] administration decided to [appoint him as] the mayor of Al-Najaf without any election and without consultation with the religious or political leaders of the city," Haidari said.

Haidari says the second reason Al-Najaf residents were upset at Abud's appointment was that he had been accused of being a member of the former Ba'ath Party in Iraq. "And they don't want to see someone who looks like a symbol for the former regime," says Haidari. Al-Najaf "was one of the cities where a lot of clerics and religious leaders, in addition to some Shi'ite political activists, were either arrested or killed or executed under the former regime."

"The Washington Post" reported in early May that U.S. officials had appointed Abud because he had prior experience in the administration of Al-Najaf. Abud was reported to have told U.S. military officials he also was a leader of a little-known militia group -- the National Unity Coalition -- dedicated to overthrowing former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and that his militia had joined with the Americans in liberating the city.

The newspaper also reported that Abud had impressed U.S. authorities with his work ethic and calm, decisive manner. As U.S. troops trained a new 1,500-man police force for the city, Abud was allowed to maintain his armed militia as his personal bodyguards and often said they would disarm several other militias protecting key Shi'ite religious leaders in the city. Rivalries between those leaders have at times threatened to create unrest and are believed to be behind the murder of one prominent cleric -- Sheikh Abdel Majid al-Khoei -- shortly after he returned to Al-Najaf from London in April.

The popular resentment of Abud sparked several street protests and frequent complaints to the city's judicial authorities. The mayor was arrested this week at the request of an Iraqi judge and a locally appointed special prosecutor. He is to be tried under Iraqi law.

The problem now facing U.S. authorities in Al-Najaf is how to replace Abud. The CPA last month canceled plans for a general election to popularly select a mayor from some 19 declared candidates, including Abud himself. U.S. military spokesmen said at the time that the plans were put off indefinitely due to security concerns and a lack of voting lists.

Now, with Abud's arrest making the issue pressing, the CPA is expected to set up a 22-member civic council to name his replacement. Until it does, the deputy interim governor in Al-Najaf will take over.

The creation of a civic council would follow a successful model already used by the CPA to choose a mayor in Mosul and some other Iraqi cities. In Mosul, more than 200 delegates from that city's Arab, Kurd, Christian, and Turkmen communities gathered at a social club in early May to choose a new mayor and city council. U.S. officials have said the new leadership in Mosul is meant to hold power until an open election for a permanent civil government can take place in a year or two.

By arresting Al-Najaf's U.S.-appointed interim mayor this week, coalition officials underlined an increasing readiness to move on from their early reliance upon the local powerbrokers they adopted immediately after the war to help keep the peace. The record of those powerbrokers so far has been mixed, with London previously sacking its appointed governor of Basra after he was rejected by tribal chiefs.

Announcing Abud's detention yesterday, the CPA said the move would serve as a warning to Iraqi officials that -- whether they are appointed by the allies or chosen by popular councils -- they must obey the law. A spokesman said, "this will send a message to all the governors that they are to be held accountable for their actions."