Bulgarian and Lithuanian troops are due to deploy in the coming weeks to a new Polish-controlled sector in central Iraq. The troops will take up duty in the area around the Shi'a shrine city of Karbala, an area that has been largely quiet since the regime of Saddam Hussein fell in April. RFE/RL looks at the situation in Karbala ahead of the troops' deployment.
Prague, 18 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Bulgarian and Lithuanian troops are expected in Karbala early next month as the new Polish-led multinational force for Iraq prepares to assume control of central Iraq.
The multinational force, which is set to officially take charge on 1 September, will replace U.S. troops who have been patrolling central Iraq since the March-April war removed Saddam Hussein from power. The central area, which stretches south of Baghdad to Al-Basrah, covers four predominantly Shi'a provinces and includes the Shi'a shrine cities of Karbala and Al-Najaf.
The new stabilization force, ultimately intended to number some 9,000 soldiers, is part of U.S.-led efforts to internationalize the post-Hussein occupation of the country, which until now has been in the hands of U.S. and British troops. The largest contingents are to come from Poland, which is providing some 2,400 troops; from Ukraine, which will provide 1,640; and Spain, which is sending 1,300.
The U.S. State Department recently announced that a total of 30 states will participate in the stabilization effort, including Albania, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, and Slovakia. Troop contributions from these countries range from a few hundred to a few dozen soldiers.
U.S. forces, which total some 150,000 soldiers, will continue to patrol the northern sector of Iraq including Baghdad, while some 11,000 British troops will continue to patrol the south around Al-Basrah.
Radio Free Iraq correspondent Borkan Shekarchi recently visited Karbala to report on the security situation in the city ahead of the stabilization force's deployment. She said the city has largely been quiet since the end of the war and free of the guerrilla attacks that have plagued coalition forces elsewhere in the country, particularly around Baghdad.
Shekarchi said the people of Karbala welcomed the fall of Hussein because it ended a regime notorious for suppressing Iraq's Shi'a majority. Since then, there have been occasional marches calling for U.S. forces to quickly end the occupation period, but no armed attacks on foreign troops.
"Karbala was really glad to get rid of the regime and they welcomed the American forces when they entered the city. They think that it is OK if the American forces stay right now to make sure everything settles, but of course they want them to leave afterwards when there is an Iraqi government," Shekarchi said.
The correspondent also said that, although the population accepts the current U.S. military presence, many people prefer that a multinational stabilization force take its place. That is because they regard the step as an encouraging sign that the U.S. and Britain do not intend to occupy Iraq indefinitely. "They think it is better to include other countries and other forces, which they feel [would mean] they are not occupied by the Americans or British. And they feel more comfortable [with that]," Shekarchi said.
Bulgaria is dispatching some 500 light infantry troops trained in peacekeeping duties to provide security for the city. Lithuania is sending 45 troops to the area.
Correspondent Shekarchi said that the security situation is currently good in Karbala because local religious leaders moved quickly after the fall of Saddam Hussein to stop looting and maintain public order. Under Iraq's U.S.-led civil administration, the city's police force has been partly reconstituted as officers are rehired following screening for ties to the former regime. Traffic police are back in the streets and U.S. forces, which are deployed outside the city, rarely find it necessary to enter the downtown on patrols.
However, the city is not without potential pitfalls for the new multinational force. Foremost among these is Shi'a unease over the presence of any foreign troops near the city's shrines. Those shrines include the tomb of one of the Shi'a's most revered leaders, Imam Husayn, who was the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.
The killing of Husayn and several of his family members at Karbala in 680 AD in a battle with a political rival is one of the key events contributing to the schism between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims.
Shekarchi said the subject of the shrines frequently comes up in public conversations about foreign troops. "People in Karbala are very sensitive about the religious places and they have a special respect for these places. They don't want American or any other forces to come near these shrines," she said.
As a measure of the importance of the city's shrines, thousands of Shi'a from across Iraq flocked to the city in late April to publicly commemorate the death of Imam Husayn. It was the first such large-scale event in decades, as Saddam's regime discouraged mass gatherings of the Shi'a faithful.
Many observers saw the huge turnout as a sign of the Shi'a's determination to play a major political role in post-Hussein Iraq and evidence that the movement will be largely directed by religious leaders.
Washington says it is making the officers of the new multinational force aware of the Shi'a's strong sensitivity about soldiers near the shrines, in hopes of heading off any future tensions.
U.S. officials told our correspondent in Karbala that their main challenge in the city today is a shortage of fuel and electricity. They said the coalition has brought in generators as a short-term solution to get some key industries back to work, including a cement factory which reopened last week with 500 employees.
Shortages of fuel sparked major riots in the southern city of Al-Basrah a week ago. The two days of unrest there left three dead, including a foreign security guard working for the United Nations.