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Iraq: Unrest In Samawah Bodes Ill For Handover

Recent anti-Japanese protest in Samawah The south-central Iraqi city Samawah has been touted by Iraqi and U.S. officials as one of the calmest cities in Iraq. Some 550 Japanese ground self-defense troops (GSDF) have been stationed in the city for more than a year, carrying out humanitarian activities. But a recent surge in violence and reports of growing public hostility to the Japanese presence are prompting many to question the prospects for continued humanitarian assistance there. Moreover, the growing unrest leaves many wondering whether Samawah -- named as one of the first cities where the coalition is expected to hand over control to Iraqi forces -- is ready for self-governance.

Like Al-Basrah, it appears that the governorate has fallen into the hands of extremists in the al-Sadr trend who are bent on imposing their vision of Islamic rule on the population. The impact of this turn of events will likely weigh on the presence of Japanese forces, who are stationed in the governorate to provide humanitarian assistance through December. The Japanese government has already hinted that it would be interested in remaining in the governorate for an additional year, and media reports indicate there is an interest in bringing in private sector assistance. With al-Sadr loyalists essentially in control of the city and governorate, it is likely that the Japanese -- labeled "occupiers" by the group -- would be forced out.

The unrest in Samawah culminated last week a massive demonstration by locals outside the governor's office protesting unemployment and poor water and electricity services. Protesters threw rocks at police and police fired into the crowd, killing one and injuring dozens. The ensuing violence left several police cars burned and forced the governor to impose a curfew on the normally calm city.

The city has seen little violence since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, but a number of incidents attributed to Sunni insurgents have occurred. Meanwhile, Shi'ite extremists loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have infiltrated the city and appear to be attempting to impose their vision of Islamic mores on the city's residents.

For Japanese forces, the situation appears vastly different from the one eight months ago. In January, five Iraqi landowners gave a written pledge to help prevent attacks against Japanese troops coming from their properties. That same month, a local newspaper poll found that nearly 80 percent of residents in the governorate supported the presence of Japanese forces there. Half of the respondents said that the aid mission was too limited, however. According to Kyodo World Service, which requisitioned the poll, the positive responses were down about 8 percent from the year before, the news agency reported on 16 January.

An al-Sadr-funded newspaper claimed that its own January poll found that 86 percent of locals were dissatisfied with the reconstruction and humanitarian activities of the GSDF, Kyodo World Service reported on 7 January.

Al-Sadr's group is said to be behind a string of demonstrations in the city that began in June. The group also appears to be at odds with the leading Shi'ite party in Iraq, Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and pressured the local Al-Muthanna Governorate Council to remove SCIRI member and Governor Muhammad Ali al-Hasani from his position this week. Al-Hasani has enjoyed good relations with the Japanese forces.

Some Violence Attributed To Sunni Insurgents

At the same time, the Sunni-dominated Ansar Al-Sunnah Army has purportedly claimed responsibility for at least one attack on Japanese forces in Samawah. A leaflet attributed to that insurgent group distributed in February threatened to kill Iraqis working with Japanese forces unless they quit their jobs. The group claimed to know the names, tribes, and addresses of locals working with the Japanese.

Fifteen self-proclaimed members of Ansar Al-Sunnah Army identified as Syrian and Iraqi nationals were captured in the city on 14 February and confessed to planning an attack on the Japanese camp, "Asahi Shimbun" reported on 16 February.
For Japanese forces, the situation appears vastly different from the one eight months ago. In January, five Iraqi landowners gave a written pledge to help prevent attacks against Japanese troops coming from their properties. That same month, a local newspaper poll found that nearly 80 percent of residents in the governorate supported the presence of Japanese forces there.

In addition, a number of Sunni Arab foreign fighters have also been arrested in the governorate, which borders Saudi Arabia. Border police arrested four Saudi nationals who entered Iraq on bicycle and purportedly in the company of a drug smuggler in the Al-Muthanna governorate in January. The men confessed to intending to carry out terrorist attacks in Samawah and Mosul, according to Japanese and Iraqi media reports.

Another Sunni insurgent group, the Islamic Army in Iraq, claimed responsibility for a 4 July rocket and explosives attack on the Japanese camp in Samawah, "Asahi Shimbun" reported on 7 July. The daily reported that police were skeptical that Sunnis had been behind the attack and were looking into the possibility that al-Sadr supporters might be the real perpetrators. The report noted that Sunnis "have recently been conducting visible activities" in Samawah, including the organization of meetings in local mosques by the political group, the Iraqi Islamic Party.

Al-Sadr's Influence Grows

Loyalists to al-Sadr began stirring up discontent in Samawah last fall by protesting the presence of Dutch and Japanese forces. (The Dutch pulled out of Iraq in March, and 800 British and Australian forces took over security operations in the governorate.) Al-Sadr's office, estimated to be between several-hundred- and 2,000-strong, steadily increased its negative rhetoric and threatened in December that its "peaceful protest" against multinational forces in the governorate would become "another kind of protest" should multinational forces fail to withdraw.

In early January, an unidentified senior member of al-Sadr's Samawah office told "Asahi Shimbun" that the group was responsible for an attack on the Japanese camp. The al-Sadr office later denied any role in the attack.

The news agency reported on 15 January that some 300 al-Sadr supporters marched on the provincial governor's office during a demonstration and handed a petition to Governor al-Hasani demanding better services and complaining of government corruption. The demonstrators reportedly carried a banner that read: "Today we have a peaceful demonstration and tomorrow [we will protest with] RPGs and guns."

Police battled insurgents in February, but it is unclear whether they were from al-Sadr's group or from opposing Sunni Islamists. In April, insurgents attacked a residence in the city, injuring one resident. Media reports indicated that similar attacks had taken place against locals who were involved in the illicit sale of alcohol. Similar attacks in Baghdad have been attributed to al-Sadr's group.

Anti-Japanese graffiti began appearing in the city in May, but local councilmen assured the GSDF that the council, at least, still supported Japanese assistance. A roadside bomb targeted a Japanese convoy on 23 June in Samawah, resulting in the Japanese suspending activities outside their camp until 12 July.

Al-Sadr's group organized a demonstration on 28 June against unemployment in the governorate that attracted 400 protesters, who clashed with police. Nevertheless, Japanese Defense Agency Director Yoshinori Ono contended that the demonstration had nothing to do with frustration with Japanese and multinational forces.

An Iraqi sports group and another unidentified association planned a pro-GSDF rally in Samawah for 3 July in support of Japanese assistance, but the rally was canceled because an armed group threatened to "punish" those taking part, "Asahi Shimbun" reported on 5 July. The Islamic Army in Iraq claimed responsibility for a 4 July attack on the camp in which one of five shells fired at the camp landed inside the compound. More demonstrations followed, and on 24 July a jewelry shop run by the former head of the Japan-Iraq Friendship organization was bombed.

On 29 July, two explosions rocked a job-training center for women funded by the Japanese through the United Nations Development Program. Flyers distributed in the city after the attack said the facility was bombed in protest of the activities it carried out. Al-Sadr supporters sponsored at least three demonstrations in July.

The 8 August demonstration was the most violent to date, however, as demonstrators attacked police and set fire to police vehicles. Al-Sharqiyah reported the following day that some 200 gunmen could be seen roaming the city center. A number of newspapers reported on 11 August that relative calm had returned to the city following the governor's removal. Meanwhile, the al-Sadr weekly "Ishraqat al-Sadr" took responsibility on 11 August for organizing "recent demonstrations" in Samawah.

Al-Sadr reportedly called for Friday protests in Baghdad this week against the lack of power and water "The Christian Science Monitor" reported on 10 August.

The removal of Governor al-Hasani has been questioned by some because only 24 of 39 council members were present for the vote. Of those 24 members, 18 voted in favor of dismissal, while five abstained from the vote and one voted against it. Safa al-Safi, minister of state for national assembly affairs and the prime minister's envoy to Al-Samawah, told the city council that its decision to dismiss al-Hasani is illegal.

Japanese reconstruction projects in the governorate include the provision of humanitarian aid and supplies including water, medical equipment and training, rebuilding schools and medical centers, and paving roads. Plans are also under way to construct a 60,000-kilowatt power station at a cost of some 12.7 billion yen (approximately $110 million).

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