Southern Iraqi Tribes Joining Armed Resistance

BAGHDAD – Violence is spreading further across Iraq, as Shi’ite Arab tribes in the south begin to engage occupation forces in new armed resistance.

Resistance in the southern parts of Iraq has been escalating over the last three months, leading to increased casualties among British and other occupation forces.

In the last seven months, at least 24 British soldiers have been killed in southern Iraq, with at least as many wounded, according to the independent website Iraq Coalition Casualties. So far at least 128 British soldiers have died in Iraq, along with 123 of other nationalities. Most of these have been stationed in southern Iraq.

Casualties earlier were far lower.

Attacks against occupation forces appear to stem from a growing nationalism.

“This is not about vengeance,” a former Iraqi army officer from Kut, 200 km south of Baghdad told IPS in Baghdad. “People have lost hope in the US-led occupation’s promises, and they are thinking of saving the country from Iranian influence which has been supported, or at least allowed by the Multinational Forces.”

British and US military leaders tend not to say who has been targeting their forces in the south. They simply call the resistance fighters “terrorists,” or they point to the Mahdi Army led by Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr as the only source of disturbance in the south.

While members of the Mahdi Army certainly carry out attacks against occupation forces in southern Iraq, other homegrown resistance seems to have taken root, fed also by earlier memories.

“People here have always hated the US and British occupation of Iraq, and remembered their grandfathers who fought the British troops with the simplest weapons,” Jassim al-Assadi, a school headmaster from Kut told IPS on a recent visit to Baghdad.

Al-Assadi was referring to the Shi’ite resistance that eventually played a key role in expelling British forces from Iraq during the 1920s and 1930s.

Armed resistance against the occupation in the south was slow to begin with because religious clerics instructed their followers to give the occupation time to fulfill promises made by the Bush and Blair administrations, al-Assadi said.

“But now they do not believe any cleric’s promises any more. They have started fighting, and that is that.”

A political analyst in Baghdad, who asked to be referred to as W. al-Tamimi, told IPS that he believes occupation forces have been working in tandem with death squads. “We have been observing American and British occupation forces supporting those death squads all over Iraq, but we were still hoping for reconciliation.”

Al-Tamimi said the sheikh of his tribe, which is both Shi’ite and Sunni, was “under great pressure by the tribe’s young men to let them join the resistance.”

The force of the growing resistance in the south has become more and more evident. Late last August 1,200 British soldiers known as The Queen’s Royal Hussars abruptly evacuated their three-year-old base after taking continuous mortar and missile fire from Shi’ite resistance fighters.

The British military announced the move as part of a long-planned handover of security to the Iraqi government, but it was clear that the move was abrupt. Iraqi authorities were not notified.

“British forces evacuated the military headquarters without coordination with the Iraqi forces,” Dhaffar Jabbar, spokesman for the local governor said at the time.

Looters promptly moved into the empty base and removed an estimated half a million dollars worth of equipment the British left behind in their hasty retreat.

In another significant event last August, Sheikh Faissal al-Khayoon, chief of the major Shi’ite Arab tribe Beni Assad, was killed by death squads with suspected Iranian backing. The killers are believed by men from the tribe to have been working for the Iraqi Ministry of Interior in Basra.

Khayoon’s tribe members reacted immediately. They took over the streets and government offices, and set fire to the Iranian consulate in Basra. The protests continued until clerics and Iraqi government officials promised them a full investigation.

“It was another lie that some of us believed,” a senior Beni Assad leader told IPS on condition of anonymity. “The Sheikh was killed by Iranian collaborators and we made a promise to his soul that his precious life will be avenged.”

Beni Tamim is another tribe with both Sunni and Shi’ite members. Members say their Sheikh, Hamid al-Suhail, was killed Jan. 1 this year by the Mahdi Army, which they believe has Iranian support. He died in the northern Baghdad Shi’ite-dominated Shula Quarter.

“He was 70 years old, and brutally killed by Mahdi death squads by pushing him from a high building,” one of the sheikh’s nephews told IPS in Baghdad. “Iran is behind all this and we, Beni Tamim are well prepared to face their yellow winds that are blowing Iraq apart.”

Leaders of the two tribes, among many other tribal chiefs in the south, are working to achieve unity between Sunni and Shi’ite groups.