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Iraq: Does Government Crackdown Target Messianic Cults Or Opposition?

Have Iraqi security forces been used to quash political dissent? (epa) At least 50 people were killed in clashes last month in both Al-Nasiriyah and Al-Basrah that broke out after suspected followers of a messianic Shi'ite group attacked other Shi'ite worshippers and security forces.

During the Ashura festival in January 2007, more than 260 members of the Jund Al-Sama (Soldiers of Heaven) cult were killed in clashes with U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces after officials purportedly uncovered a plot by the group to storm the holy city of Al-Najaf and kill mainstream Shi'ite religious leaders. Following the Ashura incident, Ahmad al-Fatlawi, a member of the Al-Najaf security committee, said some 400-500 Jund Al-Sama cult members were arrested during the battle and subsequent investigation, and the same number were killed.

While few observers question the existence of these cults, which seek to hasten the reappearance of a 12th-century Shi'ite imam, some say the crackdown is a ruse by government forces to rein in tribal opposition to a leading Shi'ite party.

These claims grew louder following conflicting official statements about the 2007 and 2008 crackdowns. According to the critics, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's regime targeted tribal and religious oppositionists, rather than heretical armed groups.

Some observers of the 2007 incident suggested that the cult was not a cult at all, but rather a group of tribesmen critical of the Shi'ite parties now in control of the government, particularly the party that is known to have infiltrated the police and security services -- Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim's Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), formerly known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

Tribal Target?

One eyewitness, Ali Abdallah al-Hatimi, told Al-Sharqiyah television on January 31, 2007, that the incident occurred when security forces opened fire on a convoy of some 200 tribesmen from his clan en route to Al-Najaf for the festival. Another clan, the Al-Khaz'al clan, came to the aid of the Al-Hatimi's and the fighting spread.

Asked why the tribes were so heavily armed, al-Hatimi said it is customary for the clan to arm itself while traveling at night in order to defend itself. Al-Sharqiyah further reported the names of those killed in the incident, including that of a freelance journalist who was killed after taking photos of the dead bodies in the hospital. Al-Sharqiyah said it could not independently confirm al-Hatimi's story.

Al-Hatami later told Al-Jazeera television that the government was unable to aid the detained families in Al-Najaf, saying al-Hakim and his party were in control of Al-Najaf, and heads of security were members of Al-Hakim's party. "They are not from the governorate. They belong to our neighbor, Iran," said al-Hatami, implying that people could not turn to the local government for help.

When a chlorine truck bomb detonated in Karbala in April, killing dozens and wounding nearly 170, the government again claimed Jund Al-Sama was behind the attack. Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier General Abd al-Karim Khalaf told state television the attack was carried out by "criminal gangs with a foreign agenda [that] are supported by elements from Al-Qaeda, the remaining criminal elements of the Jund Al-Sama group. These groups aligned themselves with the takfiris [non-believers] and some members of the former regime" to create sedition.

The government has never tried to explain why a Shi'ite group such as Jund Al-Sama would want to align itself with a Sunni Wahhabi group like Al-Qaeda or, more importantly, why Al-Qaeda would align itself with Jund Al-Sama. Moreover, the contention that a foreign state (read: Arab neighbor) was supporting either Jund Al-Sama or Al-Qaeda or both is illogical.

Reports that trickled out later in 2007 indicated the government had arrested purported Jund Al-Sama members from tribal regions in the south's marsh areas. One such report, which appeared in the London-based "Al-Hayat" on June 20, quoted a "high-level security official" as saying several tribal leaders and notables, as well as former Iraqi Army officers with links to Jund Al-Sama, were arrested.

"The second-most-prominent leader in this group is one of the leaders of the marsh tribes in Al-Jabayish," the official claimed. The official also backed the government claim that those arrested were also linked to the former regime, as well as to "the intelligence service of an Arab country," and that they were conspiring against al-Maliki's government.

Several officials, including Al-Najaf Deputy Governor Abd al-Husayn Abtan, claimed the group was also linked to Al-Qaeda. Among those arrested were tribal leaders from Al-Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Maysan governorates. Abtan also claimed that foreigners took part in the fighting, including a Sudanese and several Afghans who were arrested. He added that two Egyptians escaped capture.

Critics say that the allegations against Jund Al-Sama make the group a convenient target and deflect attention from what they say is the reality of Shi'ite infighting.

Iraq's Shi'ite south cannot be viewed as a cohesive unit. Rivalries among competing forces with divergent political and religious views have only been exasperated since 2003 by the influx of opposition Shi'ite organizations.

Those organizations, such as the ISCI, have come to wield tremendous political power, first in Baghdad and later in the region, after ISCI's militia, the Badr Forces, infiltrated and took command over Iraq's police and security organs. Threats, intimidation, and the targeting of indigenous leaders opposed to the ISCI, which is largely viewed as an Iranian agent and outside force, have left the population cowed. With police and local governments run by ISCI-appointed staff, many tribal leaders say there is no one to protect them from rogue security forces.

Critics Allege Government Cover-Up

Despite initial government claims that Jund Al-Sama was relatively small in size (Government spokesman al-Dabbagh claimed the group had only 331 members, while Al-Najaf's deputy governor said 1,000) and virtually wiped out as a result of the security operations that immediately followed the 2007 clashes, arrests have continued. Media reports compiled by RFE/RL between February and December 2007 show that more than 2,200 people were arrested by Iraqi security forces for their alleged connection to Jund Al-Sama. The arrests were carried out in the Babil, Al-Qadisiyah, Maysan, Karbala, and Al-Najaf governorates.

In a September trial that included 458 defendants from the group, 10 Jund Al-Sama members were sentenced to death, while 54 defendants were acquitted. The rest received sentences from 15 years to life. Media reports indicated that lawyers appointed to defend the accused were not given the files until the day before the trial and were not allowed to meet with the defendants before the trial got under way.

Critics of al-Hakim and his party alleged the government story was fabricated and suggested the party, through its infiltration of government security forces, was waging a campaign against Shi'a not loyal to the party.

Ali al-Juburi, spokesman of the Al-Khalisiyah Shi'ite trend or movement, told Al-Jazeera television in February 2007: "I believe we are facing a grand conspiracy against these Iraqi people. Not a single source or person from the party the government claims is Jund Al-Sama has so far declared being from this group or [confirmed] that this battle had raged between Iraqi-U.S. forces and other parties. All we have are statements from one side -- the officials in the government and U.S. forces." Sunni press, including the "Al-Zaman" newspaper and the Iraqi Islamic Party's weekly "Dar Al-Salam," also portrayed the 2007 Al-Najaf events as a political dispute pitting government security forces against Arab tribes in south-central Iraq.

Following the events last month in Al-Nasiriyah and Al-Basrah, in which government forces again clashed with followers of the so-called Al-Yamani cult, headed by Ahmad bin al-Hassan al-Yamani, an Iraqi family came forward claiming photographs of al-Yamani aired in the media were not al-Yamani but rather their relative, Fa'iz al-Musawi, who died in 2006. It is unclear where the pictures came from and whether there was any government involvement in the distribution of the photographs.

Shi'ite parliamentarians in late January tried to portray the events in Al-Nasiriyah and Al-Basrah as the result of a naive, poor, and disaffected population falling under the spell of clever exploiters. "There are external forces that try to exploit these movements," parliamentarian Jabir Habib Jabir told the Voices of Iraq website on January 26. "Poor economic circumstances contribute a lot to the message of Al-Mahdawiyah [messianic] groups. As long as poverty increases in Iraq, that message will have greater effects on our society that experiences dramatic changes."

As for the contention that Al-Qaeda or rival states supported the cult, the U.S. military has said there is no evidence linking the Shi'ite extremists with Al-Qaeda. Iraqi government spokesman al-Dabbagh did a complete turnaround on January 25 and also contended there was no proof of international support for the Al-Yamani group, contradicting statements made the previous day by Al-Basrah Operations Commander Muhal al-Furayji.

Sunni parliamentarian Muhammad al-Dayani, who hails from the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, blamed al-Maliki's administration for the events, telling Voices of Iraq: "It is expected that more of those movements will appear if the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki continued these wrong policies. The recent clashes in Al-Basrah and Al-Nasiriyah proved that the Iraqi security services failed in dealing with hot issues."

ISCI Taking Control

To be sure, Iraqis living in the south-central region are disaffected with what they see as a government that cares little about their welfare and a ruling clergy unwilling to challenge the political establishment. The Shi'a appear to have little space in which to confront the growing power of the ISCI. The party has staunchly opposed attempts by tribes to form awakening councils -- groups formed by local tribesmen to fight terrorists -- in their areas, saying there is no need for such bodies. While awakening councils were formed in Babil, Al-Qadisiyah, Dhi Qar, and Al-Najaf, only the first appears to be operating with some success, probably because of its proximity to Baghdad and frequent interaction with U.S. forces.

The refusal of Shi'ite religious leaders such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to venture into the political arena, coupled with ISCI claims of support from the likes of al-Sistani, creates the impression among the disaffected that the clerics in Al-Najaf are aligned with a pro-Iranian party that seeks to turn southern Iraq into an extension of Iran.

By drawing legitimacy from al-Sistani, the ISCI hopes to gain mass popular support in the south. By promoting ISCI as the protector of al-Sistani -- and paradoxically, the organization by whom clerics' very survival is dependent -- al-Hakim hopes to make inroads toward gaining control over Al-Najaf's vast fortunes, which includes billions of dollars in alms and revenue generated from religious tourism.

In reality, the issue is far more complicated. As the International Crisis Group (ICG) pointed out in its November 2007 report on the ISCI, the group has shown it has no ideology. While before 2003 it paid allegiance to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali al-Khamenei, it publicly traded that for allegiance to al-Sistani following its return to Iraq in a bid to win Iraqi Shi'ite support for the party.

The overriding impression among southern Iraqis is that the ISCI is intent on making itself the premier Shi'ite party in the south. The ISCI's promotion of a super region encompassing the nine governorates south of Baghdad -- which has little support among rival Shi'ite parties -- falls within this plan. As the ICG points out, the unstated assumption was that the ISCI would govern the super region, and thereby control its vast oil and gas resources. Indeed, al-Hakim's son and heir-apparent Ammar has been accused of overseeing vast smuggling operations that channel oil to Iran.

Recent clashes between ISCI-backed security forces and marsh tribesmen appear to support this assumption. Hizballah Movement in Iraq Secretary-General Hasan al-Sari, who is currently serving as minister of state for marshland affairs, has blamed unnamed politicians for obstructing plans to restore drained marshlands and to reconstruct them, Baghdad's "Al-I'tisam" reported on January 8. Citing local residents, the weekly also reported that "the Islamic parties and trends for which they had voted in the parliamentary elections have ignored their causes once they took office -- while when they were in opposition abroad they said that the draining of the marshlands and the displacement of their inhabitants were one of the biggest crimes of the age against humanity and the environment."

According to the weekly, the marshlands in question contain huge unexplored reserves of oil and gas. Experts from the South Oil Company have said that when the marshlands were drained by Saddam Hussein's regime, gas currents emanated from them.

Targeting Other Opposition

To be sure, the ISCI has largely been blamed for a campaign waged in 2004 and 2005 targeting former regime elements, military leaders, and pilots who served under Saddam Hussein during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. Other more recent campaigns, such as a spree of assassinations last year targeting senior clergy aligned with Ayatollah al-Sistani, have been blamed on Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army. However, it is entirely possible that ISCI was behind the attacks. Such killings would easily send a message to al-Sistani and his aides who preach in communities across southern Iraq that ISCI's policies should not be challenged

Reports from other governorates suggest ISCI-backed security forces are carrying out similar campaigns against opposition as far north as Diyala Governorate.

In an address to Karbala officials on January 25, Prime Minister al-Maliki all but acknowledged that last month's battle was driven by frustration over political realities rather than a need to curb a messianic cult. "Some might say that certain individuals are rebelling against the political process, making statements...and directing accusations at all state officials.... True, these will remain in the arena. There is freedom in the country. Let them talk. We benefit from criticism if it is objective, scientific, and based on a patriotic background."

Despite al-Maliki's claims of endorsing a healthy dialogue among the various components of society, it is clear that there is no will to change the current system. Given the political machinations plaguing Baghdad, it appears little change will come in the south. Al-Maliki's political survival is dependant on United Iraqi Alliance support, and thus he cannot challenge the ISCI. Other groups, such as al-Sadr or Hizballah, also appear hostage to the ISCI, although they may try to press the issue at a later time.

To many Iraqis, the ISCI's tactics appear part of a grand scheme aimed at eventually seizing power and placing it in the hands of the al-Hakim clan.

If Iraqi police, supported by ISCI/Badr, continue to operate unchecked, it is likely that once coalition forces pull out of Iraq, a civil war will erupt, pitting Iraqi police supported by ISCI/Badr and possibly Iran, against Sunni Arabs and Kurdish groups and tribes, and even the Iraqi Army. Other scenarios are of course possible -- such as Sunni Arabs siding with the ISCI against the Kurds -- but there is no doubt that violence will erupt. At the very least, Iraq under ISCI control will be a police state, closely aligned with Iran, and arguably no less of a threat to the Arab region and the West than Saddam Hussein was.

RFE/RL Iraq Report

RFE/RL Iraq Report

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