UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
IRAQ: Southern Iraq in danger of slipping into chaos
BAGHDAD, 4 Feb 2007 (IRIN) - A former major general in the Iraq army has warned that the bloody battle that took place in the holy Shi'ite Muslim city of Najaf, some 200km south of Baghdad, in late January could mark a turning point for the relative peace the southern provinces have had since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Ambiguity still surrounds events of the battle that pitted Iraqi and US forces on one side against a previously unknown Shi’ite messianic cult called ‘Jund al-Samaa’, or ‘Soldiers of Heaven’, on the other.
The clashes, which erupted on 28 January in Najaf palm groves, left 263 militants dead, 210 wounded and 392 others arrested, Iraqi defence ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said.
At least 11 Iraqi troops were killed along with two US soldiers, whose helicopter was shot down during the battle. Some 30 Iraqi troops were wounded.
"The battle yielded two important issues: first, it raised doubts about the performance and capability of the Iraqi security forces in confronting violence; and second was the exposure of the tensions and ructions among the rival Shi’ite groups," said retired Major General Mu'taz Hafidh Ali, who served nearly 30 years in Iraq's former army.
"The appearance of such a group, which led to such bloody clashes, was a warning signal that the relative peace that Iraq's Shi'ite southern provinces once enjoyed since the US-led invasion [in March 2003], is in danger of slipping into a Shi'ite-Shi'ite communal conflict," Ali said.
"The government has to adopt two important things immediately: the first is to crack down on Shi'ite militias; and the second is to go ahead with economic reforms to keep these naive and unemployed people away from being lured by these groups," he added.
The only available account of what happened on 28 January in Najaf is the government’s one. It said that it was first concerned about the Jund al-Samaa cult when an informant told them in the middle of January that the secretive group was about to launch attacks during the Shi'ite festival of Ashura.
Commemorating the death of the Imam Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Ashura is the major Shi’ite religious event of the Islamic lunar year. This year, it fell on 30 January.
The cultists were allegedly planning to slip into Najaf with the millions of pilgrims who descend on shrine cities for Shi’ite festivals, government spokesman Ali al-Dabagh told a press conference on 1 February.
Iraqi forces attacked ferociously
Units from the Iraqi army, police and the paramilitary national police went to the group's hide out about 2km north-east of Najaf but were attacked ferociously, al-Dabagh added.
Iraqi forces prevailed only after US and British jets blasted the militants with rockets, machine-gun fire and 500-pound bombs.
“The cultists wanted to launch attacks against pilgrims in Najaf and declare the state of the Hidden Imam and carry out some bombings on the 10th of [the Muslim month of] Muharram. Their first goal was to capture the holy city of Kufa,” al-Dabagh said.
The ‘Hidden Imam’ was a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad who disappeared as a child in the 9th century. Shi’ites believe he will return one day to bring justice on earth.
There has been confusion since the clash about the identity of the group's leader, who was killed during the 24-hour battle. He has been identified by different names and nicknames. Al-Dabagh said his name is Abdul-Zahra Kadhim al-Qaraawi. He used several other names, including Abu Qamar, and was born in 1968.
Defence ministry spokesman al-Askari said those detained among the cultists included 35 women and 31 children. Apparently, the gunmen had brought their families with them to make it easier to infiltrate the city. al-Askari added that women and their children would be set free after authorities had finished interrogating them.
Some of the detainees had been injured. A doctor at Najaf general hospital, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to talk to the media, said most of the wounded were treated at the scene by Iraqi and US forces and “some of them, especially women, suffered burns and injuries”.
Reporters were not allowed at the scene and were prevented from interviewing the wounded in hospitals.
Ahmed al-Fatlawi, head of Najaf Human Rights Centre, said his NGO has not seen the detainees yet as they were still being interrogated but added that officials assured them that they were given food, blankets and medicine.
“Women and children are in a safe place and they are well treated while the wounded are still receiving treatment at the hospitals. We were promised to be allowed to visit them once the interrogations ended,” al-Fatlawi said.
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