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Iraq Report: March 28, 2005

28 March 2005, Volume 8, Number 11

By Kathleen Ridolfo

Thirty militiamen loyal to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr allegedly attacked 600 picnicking students from Al-Basrah University's College of Engineering at the city's Al-Andulus park on 17 March, claiming the students had violated Islamic norms by dressing in Western clothing, singing, and dancing. The incident sparked several days of protests and raised questions about the absence of the rule of law in the face of the religious extremism that appears to be dictating new societal norms in Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated south.

Incidents such as this one are not new to Iraq, but they appear to be happening with increasing frequency. As parliamentarians prepare to draft a permanent constitution that will determine the rights of women and minorities and the basis of law (Shari'a or not), questions arise whether vulnerable segments of the population will have the wherewithal to protest openly what some predict could be a degradation of rights in the new Iraq. Those who advocate that Islamic law serve as the sole basis for the new constitution say it is their right to impose the will of the majority upon the minority. One aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has said that public freedoms should be regulated based on the Islamic character of the country.

Some critics of the U.S.-led occupation blamed the former Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) for focusing rebuilding efforts on Baghdad, while paying little attention to Iraq's second city in the south. In November 2003, British officials said they were unable to make important administrative decisions without prior approval from CPA officials in Baghdad, who they claimed rarely returned e-mails or phone calls. "There is an operational lack of teeth," Sir Hilary Synnott, then the regional commander for southern Iraq, told, the website reported on 11 November 2003 (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 14 November 2003). "We need more human resources," Synnott said. The website reported at the time that out of some 2,000 CPA employees, only 20 were stationed in southern Iraq. The same report indicated that local cleric Ahmad al-Maliki had reportedly seized control over the school system in southern Iraq, and was promoting religious fundamentalism in the schools.

Militias have held sway over Al-Basrah since the fall of the Hussein regime in 2003. In January 2004, London's "The Sunday Times" uncovered the existence of a secret police force operating in Al-Basrah that has reportedly kidnapped, detained, and even killed former Ba'ath Party members. The Istikhbarat al-Shurta (Police Intelligence) unit reportedly operated with the approval of British forces, and families of Iraqis kidnapped at gunpoint by the unit complained that British officials refused to help them in locating their relatives. The newspaper reported that the intelligence unit employed members of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq's (SCIRI) armed wing, the Badr Brigades.

Some of the victims were former Ba'ath Party members who were encouraged to register as such and reapply for their jobs, only to be killed in the street after leaving the registration office. "When talking to normal ordinary people, we say that we are police, but in fact we work for the government," Istikhbarat al-Shurta Deputy Director Abbas Abd al-Ali told "The Sunday Times." "Only one-third of our work is police work. The rest is civilian intelligence and intelligence for state officials. We have our eyes and ears everywhere around the city."

The same intelligence unit apparently stood by as al-Sadr militiamen attacked students during last week's picnic at Al-Andulus Park. One student, Ahmad (a pseudonym) who was not at the picnic, but who attended subsequent demonstrations was asked on 23 March about the attitudes of other Shi'ite groups in the city about the incident, and specifically about the Badr Brigades. He said that both the Al-Da'wah Party and SCIRI issued official condemnations of the attacks, but in reality did nothing to stop them.

"The intelligence service that has arrested students is staffed by Al-Badr forces," Ahmad said. "The police stand with the [al-Sadr] militia against the students. [The police] do nothing." Asked whether the new governorate council intervened, he said: "The governorate council also does nothing, because it is new. The governor says, 'I am new, I can't do anything.' The situation is growing worse by the day, and [the militias] are trying to impose armed terror on the people." Ahmad's statements indicate acquiescence on the part of the newly elected governorate council, which is dominated by Islamic parties. Conservative judges are also invoking Shari'a law in some courtrooms, reported on 6 February.

The army is no help either. Army personnel guarding the university on 22 March reportedly allowed al-Sadr militiamen to enter the campus where they allegedly beat a student from the civil engineering department. According to Ahmad, al-Sadr militiamen have been rounding up students who spoke publicly about that incident and forcing them to sign a written statement that they will no longer talk or demonstrate.

Media reports indicate that Islamist groups have gained control over student organizations on university campuses throughout Iraq since the fall of the Hussein regime. Al-Sadr's militia in particular, has made strong inroads onto campuses in the absence of mainstream political movements, one observer noted.

But university campuses are not the only targets of militiamen bent on imposing Islamic norms on Iraqi society. Music and liquor stores in Al-Basrah and in Baghdad have been routinely targeted since mid-2003. In April 2004, media reports indicated that the British military was reluctant to take action against militias operating contraband rings in Al-Basrah. One month later, the British responded to reports that al-Sadr militiamen had set up checkpoints in the city by calling the incidents nothing more than a disturbance.

Women in Al-Basrah and Baghdad have frequently complained that they are harassed if they leave their house without hijab, many noting the graffiti that lines the walls of some neighborhoods in the capital threatening death to women who refuse to veil. Hairdressers and barbers have also been targeted -- some even killed. Salons have been bombed or forced to close for giving "Western" style haircuts. Christian women in particular feel singled out by the extremists, who they say are forcing them to abide by Islamic practices, completely disregarding their religious rights as Christians. In the absence of the rule of law, militias send a signal to all Iraqis that they are empowered to dictate societal norms, instilling fear in all who contradict these norms.

There is no guarantee that the Iraqi constitution will provide safeguards for individual and religious freedoms in the new Iraq. If the constitution fails to offer explicit guarantees of rights, it will leave Iraq's most vulnerable citizens -- women and minorities -- susceptible to rights abuses. As some Islamists already contend, a constitution that calls for 'no laws to be enacted that contradict the tenets of Islam,' (a stipulation already laid down in the TAL) in essence sanctions the enforcement Shari'a tenets that, for example, entitle women to half the inheritance that her male counterpart would be entitled to. Ultimately, the decision will lie at the ballot box, where the Iraqi people will approve the constitution through a referendum.


RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) on 22 March interviewed two students from Al-Basrah University who were involved in the clashes with al-Sadr militiamen and subsequent demonstrations.

RFI correspondent Ferial al-Sheibany: You were among the students at the Civil Engineering Department picnic last week. Can you tell us what exactly happened at the picnic?

Zaynab (Al-Basrah University student; not her real name): I hope. We arrived at the park, Al-Andalus Park. About an hour after our arrival, we could hear sounds of gunfire.... Then we saw masked men who attacked us with weapons. They were holding sticks in their hands. They came to us, at the place where we were sitting in the park. They started to insult us and swear at us.

RFI: Did you react at the insults?

Zaynab: Yes. [Male] students replied to them. Then they started beating both male and female students. Whoever said a word against them was beaten. Not just beaten, they took mobile phones and girls' gold jewelry.

RFI: What were they beating you with? With sticks, or did they use weapons?

Zaynab: Well, some of the students were shot at. But the tool [of beating] was sticks. Even female students were beaten. Of course, male students did not keep silent. Whoever defended a female student was attacked.

RFI: Were you beaten as well?

Zaynab: Not me. But my female friends were.

RFI: Was it a severe beating or a light one?

Zaynab: No, a very strong beating.

RFI: There was a Christian female student with you who was apparently beaten and is now in the hospital.

Zaynab: Yes, she is now receiving treatment in the hospital. They smashed her head with a pistol butt. She was beaten very severely.

RFI: Why exactly she was beaten so severely?

Zaynab: The main reason is that she is a Christian. Not only that. As she was not wearing a veil (hijab), she was beaten.

RFI: So was she beaten because of not wearing a veil?

Zaynab: Yes. That was the main reason, of course.

RFI: What information do you have on this student? Is she in a critical state?

Zaynab: Well, I heard she was in the hospital. That is all I heard.

RFI: How many more students are currently in the hospital?

Zaynab: Currently, I do not know. But there are some students. And there are some who were released from the hospital after a day or two.

RFI: Have you filed any complaint about what happened to you to the office of the faculty dean or the university president?

Zaynab: Naturally. A day after that, we conducted demonstrations in the university against the act that was committed on us. We would like that someone would support us but no one has stood with us. Even the dean kept quiet.


RFI correspondent Ferial al-Sheibany: What attitude do the students take to the interference of political groups in the university?

Ahmad (Al-Basrah University student; not his real name): Of course, students of generally all faculties of Al-Basrah University strongly reject this undisguised interference. This happened after the fall of the regime [of Saddam Hussein] when [political] parties, under various guises, entered the university with the pretext of election for the Students' Assembly and other [pretexts]. They started to hang religious slogans in departments and institutes and no one could say anything. We cannot speak [against that] because then we would be threatened with killing. This threat sometimes comes even in extreme forms. Being beaten or sworn at is just the most simple example.

RFI: How does the threat reach you? By telephone, e-mail, or directly?

Ahmad: It is being delivered by other students who communicate the threat, or they send it in a written way to the [threatened] students.

RFI: Have any of these threats been fulfilled, in beatings or killings?

Ahmad: Yes, the threats have been fulfilled. Two months ago, in Al-Basrah University and exactly in the Department of Sciences, two female students were killed who had some time before been warned that they should be wearing hijab [a veil]. They refused to wear hijab, as it is a private matter. Both of them were killed in front of the doors of their houses, in fact. [The killers] followed them home from the university. All the students know about that.

RFI: Could you give their names?

Ahmad: Well, in fact, I cannot because I am their [distant] relative and I do not know if it is good to say their names. [Militiamen] come [with threats] not only to students but the family can also suffer because of them. They are ready to threaten [the families] as well. No one dares to speak out.

RFI: What position does the university take to these affairs, to these threats and interventions from extremist political parties? Have you not delivered your opinion to the university?

Ahmad: Yes, our opinion and word has reached the university and the university knows very well about it. But when students go to a dean or to the university president, they are told: "We cannot do anything because we are being threatened ourselves." The university president cannot issue any order because if he did so, his and his family's lives would be in danger. It is the same with the deans who have no power in these matters. They come to students and say: "Children, we would like to do something but we cannot. We are afraid for your lives. We are afraid for your and your family's future." This is their reaction; this is our reality. We are extremely oppressed, more than we were oppressed in Saddam's times. Much more.

RFI: What is the stance of the municipality or of the governor?

Ahmad: All of them step silently with them. All governors that have come, apart from Wa'il Abd al-Latif who was neutral, or trying to preserve neutrality. After him, all were following [the Islamists]. The police are with them. When there was the demonstration, the police and the National Guard were shooting at students as they tried to break students up.

RFI: Were you an eyewitness of that?

Ahmad: I was in the demonstration. When the demonstration started, they tried to break students up by shooting in the air. When we tried to enter the university [campus], they prevented us from that. When they saw that the number of students enormously grew, as even students of secondary schools joined the students of faculties and institutes, they let the demonstration continue and did not do anything. But the students who were in the demonstration are now receiving mailed threats to keep silent.


RFI correspondent Ferial al-Sheibany: Yesterday, we called Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Tahir al-Bakka' and he said we should ask you about the investigation commission established by the ministry on the case of the Department of Civil Engineering students [in Al-Basrah]. Can you comment on the issue?

Salam al-Maliki: As for the case between Martyr [al-Sayyid Muhammad] al-Sadr Office and the Department of Civil Engineering students, it has got very strong political dimensions. It is an issue that deserves neither such a large space in the media, nor the unrest in the streets that happened due to that. There have been political institutions [interfering]; there is a hand of the occupation forces; there are a number of conspiracies against the Islamic stream [in politics] and especially against the Martyr [al-Sayyid Muhammad] al-Sadr Office. We have evidence and documents...that some political camps have interfered in the issue.

RFI: Some media covering the incident reported that there have been casualties among students, with a Christian female student among them. What is true in this news?

Salam al-Maliki: This news is not correct. The [Christian] female student's psychological state was bad after the attack. But the governor of Al-Basrah, I think, came and offered her any possible assistance.

RFI: What right does any political, religious, or ideological entity or group have to attack students who are at an event officially permitted by the offices of the dean of the department and of the university's president?

Salam al-Maliki: The dean did not allow students to go out. According to his statements, he did not have any knowledge of the picnic. This is one thing. And second, what took place was a picnic in a park in the middle of a residential area. The situation was really difficult. When [some people saw] immoralities taking place, they immediately notified [Martyr] al-Sayyid [Muhammad al-Sadr Office]. A group of the people from [Martyr al-Sayyid Muhammad al-Sadr] Office were trying to agree with the students, but some students reacted nervously and the problem appeared. The students must be aware of the public taste. As much as they want to be respected and to exercise their rights in full freedom, there are also freedoms that they must respect. This [Islamic] month is a sacred month. Most residents of Al-Basrah are orthodox Muslims, so they also see it as a provocation of their feelings if there is dance, singing, and some immoral practices. It is also a challenge to Islamic principles and to Islamic law. As much as they want to exercise their rights, they also must respect the opposite side.

RFI: If this was the case and all that happened was so simple, if the attack was not heavy and there were no casualties or injuries, why then has Martyr [al-Sayyid Muhammad] al-Sadr Office in Al-Basrah issued an apology?

Salam al-Maliki: It is true that Martyr [al-Sayyid Muhammad] al-Sadr Office in Al-Basrah and in all governorates of Iraq has always performed the role of leadership and paternity. It has always played a role of responsibility [for the society]. As the security situation was not stable, it was forced to step a little bit back. It issued the apology to the students so that there are no problems and so that the incident is not misused. Martyr [al-Sayyid Muhammad] al-Sadr Office tried to patch the issue up and to preserve the security situation and the overall unity in Al-Basrah. That is why it presented this apology


By Kathleen Ridolfo

(Published 21 March 2005. See:

Tensions between Iraq and Jordan have spiraled to an unprecedented low two weeks after the Jordanian daily "Al-Ghadd" printed an apparently fabricated report claiming that a Jordanian father celebrated his son's martyrdom in a suicide operation in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 21 March 2005).

Both countries also recalled their ambassadors on 20 March, as Iraqi leaders accused Jordan of harboring Iraqi Ba'athists and contributing to terrorism in Iraq through lax security and a lenient attitude towards the media in the country. Iraqi Shi'ite parliamentarian Akram al-Hakim told Al-Jazeera television on 20 March: "The deterioration is a natural consequence of a huge file of violations not only by the Jordanian government but also by political, popular, and media circles in Jordan." Continuing tensions between the two countries could cause severe problems for Jordan, not only diplomatically, but on the economic level as well.

Jordan has benefited from the war and the reconstruction phase in Iraq more than any other country in the region. Jordan reportedly aided coalition forces during the war by providing a base of operations for the U.S. military along Iraq's western border. It has since served a vital role as Iraq's reconstruction hub, facilitating the delivery of military goods, equipment, and reconstruction supplies, as well as serving as a safe area for various programs supported by the U.S. and Iraqi governments and other international institutions where Iraqis -- from journalists to soldiers -- could be trained away from the insecurity and chaos of Baghdad. For Jordanian businesses, the reconstruction phase has been a boon for the floundering economy, which was affected by slow economic progress and the ongoing Palestinian "intifada."

A recent International Monetary Fund (IMF) report ( predicted that macroeconomic conditions for Jordan remained manageable in 2005 due to, among other factors, "the emergence of Jordan as a hub for activities in Iraq." The report cited a "remarkably strong and broad-based rebound in exports to Iraq," noting "merchandise export growth is expected to be sustained at about 6-8 percent a year, spurred by further penetration of markets in Iraq and other neighboring countries, as well as by the [free-trade agreement] with the United States and the Association Agreement with the European Union." The "Jordan Times" reported on 20 March that Iraq is second to the U.S. as Jordan's top commercial partner, accounting for 16 percent -- or $42.4 million worth -- of exports from Jordan. In April, Jordan will host the Second International Trade Exhibition for the Rebuilding of Iraq, linking Iraqi government officials and businessmen to outside investors. Some 900 companies from 43 countries are expected to take part in the trade fair, with tens of billions of dollars in contracts at stake.

The situation between Iraq and Jordan escalated in recent days after Iraqis, led by Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) head Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, leveled the aforementioned accusations against the Jordanian government. Al-Hakim praised demonstrators who had protested for several days across the Babil Governorate where the Al-Hillah bombing took place, and in Baghdad where some 2,000 demonstrators gathered on 18 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2005). Al-Hakim and others condemned Jordan's initial failure to respond adequately to the "Al-Ghadd" report, when the government, rather than addressing the newspaper's report, condemned SCIRI for criticizing the Jordanian government.

It appears that the Jordanian government did contribute to the deterioration in relations by failing to assess the Iraqi people's reaction and increasingly vocal intolerance of the continued terrorism taking place in their country. Instead, Jordan portrayed SCIRI's reaction as overblown, a likely response in light of an earlier dispute that erupted in December, when the king reportedly accused Tehran of seeking to establish a Shi'a belt from Iran to Lebanon through Iraq, an accusation that offended Iraqi Shi'ite leaders. Abdullah later retracted his statement in an interview with Amman's "Al-Ra'y" published on 6 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 January 2005), saying his comments were misinterpreted. Jordanian Foreign Minister Hani al-Mulqi, however, perpetuated the Jordanian viewpoint on 21 March, when he told Al-Arabiyah television that he believed Iran to be behind the current crisis.

The Jordanian Senate, meanwhile, said in a 21 March communique that there is no critical issue between the two countries or the two peoples, adding that a 'stray group' has exploited a false news report in order to hamper Jordanian-Iraqi relations, Petra reported. Senators called the SCIRI statements a "fake and unfair" campaign against Jordan, the news agency said. Jordanian media also portrayed the SCIRI statement in a negative light.

Jordan did issue an official response to SCIRI on 20 March, saying: "We have cooperated and still cooperate with the Iraqi brothers through our national institutions to destroy this plague which does not distinguish between Jordanians and Iraqis, Shi'ites and Sunnis, and which aims to sow the seeds of sedition between the two fraternal peoples." Some Iraqi officials however, are apparently holding out for an official apology from King Abdullah.

The crisis could critically affect Jordan's role vis-a-vis Iraq's reconstruction in the coming months as Shi'ites assume control over the transitional government. Iraq and Jordan are currently in the final stages of several economic agreements, including the establishment of a free-trade zone on their border. Last week, Jordan and Egypt reached an initial agreement with Iraq to provide electricity to Iraq's western Al-Anbar Governorate. Iraqi-Jordanian business is so important that the Jordanian government in February instituted a number of measures, including the granting of temporary Jordanian citizenship to some Iraqi businessmen in order to facilitate business development. The measure also means Iraqi businessmen would not have to provide credit guarantees to Jordanian national banks for loan transactions.