BASRA — The eruption of demonstrations in the south of Iraq this week could rob the occupation forces of what was considered a critical bastion of support.
The southern areas of Iraq have long been said to be secure, and people there peaceful towards the occupation forces. Iraqis living in the south were also believed to be cooperative with the occupation to the extent that they supported administrative steps taken by successive Iraqi governments.
The majority of the population of the south are Shia Muslims, and Iraq has had Shia- dominated governments under the occupation.
But demonstrations against the occupation and the United States by hundreds of thousands of angry Shias in Najaf, Kut and other cities across the south Apr. 9 mark a sharp break from a policy of cooperation. Protesters demanded an end to the U.S.-led occupation, burnt U.S. flags and chanted “Death to America!”
Brig. Gen. Abdul Karim al-Mayahi, a police commander in Najaf, told reporters that at least half a million people joined the demonstration there.
Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, told reporters, “We say that we’re here to support democracy. We say that free speech and freedom of assembly are part of that. While we don’t necessarily agree with the message, we agree with their right to say it.”
Clashes after the demonstration left at least one U.S. soldier dead and another wounded in Diwaniyah, 180 km south of Baghdad.
“We have been patient and we have sacrificed a lot thinking the situation would be better one day soon,” Hussein Ali, a teacher from Diwaniyah told IPS. “The result we see now is that we were dragged into a swamp of hatred between brothers, and that all the bloodshed was for the sake of war leaders to get more power and fortune.”
Fighting is continuing in Diwaniyah between the occupation forces and the Mehdi Army led by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Additional U.S. and Iraqi troops have been brought into the city to make arrests and carry out door-to-door raids in search of illegal weapons and wanted militiamen.
Muqtada al-Sadr, quiet for a considerable period after clashing with U.S. troops early on in the occupation period, publicly called on his militia to attack occupation troops.
So far this month, five occupation troops have been killed every day on average, according to U.S. Department of Defence figures.
The new Shia armed uprising, which appears to be in its early days, is a further blow to occupation forces that are already stretched thin.
“Four years of patience and what do we get?” Ali Hashim, a merchant from the southern city Basra told IPS. “We got nothing but the loss of our country to those who spoke a lot but did nothing. The United States failed us and sold us cheap to those who would have no mercy on us.”
Mahmood al-Lamy, a historian from Basra told IPS the situation there was critical.
“Basra is the biggest southern city and the only Iraqi city that has a port near the Gulf. It is now controlled by various militias who fight each other from time to time over an oil smuggling business that is flourishing under the occupation.”
Lamy said residents fear that “the situation here will be a lot worse in the coming months due to disputes that are appearing between major parties.”
Lamy was referring to the withdrawal last month of the al-Fadhila Party from the Shia Islamic Coalition Parliament Group, and the dismissal of two ministers from the al-Sadr movement as a punishment for contacting U.S. officials in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq.
The Shia political group is increasingly divided over many issues, and it seems unlikely that it will hold together. But many of the groups are increasingly opposed to the occupation.
“We were late to realise that we were wrong about U.S. intentions,” Salman Yassen of the Basra city municipality council told IPS. “We waited four years while U.S. and Iraqi authorities kept us busy fighting each other while they were setting the plan of stealing our oil and tearing our country apart so that their allies would feel safe.”
Four years of the occupation of Iraq have seen many changes in U.S. strategies, ambassadors and tactics, but the changes may be too little, too late.
“The delay in moving politically has cost Iraq, the U.S. and many other countries a great deal,” former Iraqi police colonel Ahmed Jabbar told IPS in Baghdad. “The least to be said is that the world would have been better off without this occupation and the catastrophic security disturbance it has caused.”
*(Ali, our correspondent in Baghdad, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)