Unlikely Challenge in Shiite Province

Resistance in Maysan to rule by outsiders poses problems for British troops and underscores uncertainty over Iraq's future as a viable state.

By Bruce Wallace

Los Angeles Times

November 18, 2004

AMARAH, Iraq — Brig. Abdul Hussain Mahmoud Badar arrived in the desolate moonscape of Maysan province from Baghdad last week to take command of the newly formed 73rd Brigade of the Iraqi national guard. Then he had a visit from three local men.

Go back to Baghdad, they told him. Or we'll kill you.

The brigadier fled the same day, an emissary from yet another regime in Baghdad sent packing from the province on Iraq's border with Iran.

"It was a message from all the Amarah people," said Hassan Nagem, a 29-year-old biologist from this dust-choked provincial capital of about 400,000 people. "We fear the national guard may become the new Saddam because they receive their orders from Baghdad. So we will pick our own leaders."

Resistance to the interim Iraqi government may be expected in the Sunni Triangle, where Saddam Hussein drew his support. But this is an overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim province. Its distrust of the government — led by a fellow Shiite, Iyad Allawi — underscores a growing uncertainty over Iraq's future as a viable state. As the country heads toward elections in January, many fear that Iraq could unravel into an assortment of regional tribes, religious groups and ethnic communities.

Those doubts extend to this fiercely independent province, which not even Hussein and his Sunni-dominated Baathists completely subdued, no matter how many agents he sent to root out opponents, no matter how many local people he killed in the region's years-long insurgency.

Now the British army faces the task of imposing order on this culture of defiance. British troops rolled into Amarah several days after Hussein was toppled last year. Amarah's residents, still blinking in the unaccustomed light of freedom, suddenly found a new occupier taking up positions.

"At least in Basra, we can claim we liberated the people," said Maj. Harry Lloyd of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, the British contingent now responsible for security in the province. "But by the time we reached Amarah, the view of the locals was: 'What are you doing here? We don't need you.' "

Since then, the opaqueness of local grudges, betrayals and shifting loyalties has made it extremely difficult for the British or the reconstruction teams sent from Baghdad to get a handle on who's in charge. The province remains in the grip of private, political and tribal militias, who fight one another for influence — as well as the British when they get in the way.

Against that threat, the British have deployed a single battle group, a thin force of about 550 combat troops to patrol a region the size of Northern Ireland, where they required more than 13,000 soldiers to counter paramilitary groups during the worst years of "the Troubles."

It is a hard landscape to make a presence felt. The British sector sprawls from the marshes drained by Hussein in the south to the mountainous Iranian border farther north, giving way to scruffy flats in the middle.

The province is bisected by Route 6, an infamous highway that roughly follows the flow of the Tigris River and links Maysan to the commercial center of Basra to the south. It has become a gantlet of carjackings, kidnappings and killings, traveled only by the brave and the well-armed.

The tribes of Marsh Arabs who now live in desperate poverty have turned car theft into a cottage industry, stealing vehicles, then selling them back to their owners.

Meanwhile, smugglers spirit weapons, drugs and anything else of value along pitted roads from neighboring Iran, feeding rumors that Iranian agents are importing murder and mayhem to Iraq through Maysan.

Along these routes, Iraqi police and national guard officers offer only token supervision. The officers, usually slumped in chairs, barely lift a hand to wave cars through.

"How many cars have you stopped today?" a British soldier demanded of a national guardsman at a checkpoint one afternoon last week. "None," the Iraqi replied with a smile, sheepishly looking on as the soldier demonstrated how to search a car.

Civilian reconstruction officials and the British army are desperate to find projects that will lance tensions in the province by putting some of the thousands of unemployed — and armed — young men to work.

But private reconstruction has stumbled badly. A monitoring team arrived in Amarah this month to check on repairs supposedly underway on 39 schools. They found work going on at three. A new power generator has been installed by Siemens outside the violence-ridden town of Majar Kabir, but the company says it is too dangerous to send an engineer to turn it on.

For its part, the British army has begun a modest, half-million-dollar project to hire some of Amarah's poorest people to clean the streets and sewers. There is cautiously hopeful talk about developing an export industry for the bricks turned out by the rows of Dickensian factories outside Amarah, whose chimneys rise like blackened fingers along a skyline hazed in clouds of acrid soot.

But for now, Maysan is mostly exporting fighters. Bellicose Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr enjoys formidable support in Maysan, and many of the province's men traveled to Sadr's spiritual home in Najaf last summer to take up a street fight there against U.S. troops.

Sadr loyalists also fought a series of less-publicized battles in Maysan against British soldiers with the Princess of Wales' Royal Regiment, clashes that began in April and culminated in August with a firefight at a road junction the British call Danny Boy, just north of Majar Kabir. The British killed more than 100 Iraqis, with some soldiers ending the hours of fighting with a fixed bayonet charge to chase the last Iraqis away.

The temperature has cooled off since then. Majar Kabir remains off-limits to British troops, although they have plans to return before the election. And after waging months of battles to retain their foothold in a compound on the main street of Amarah, the British tired of fighting their way out every time they needed to be resupplied and withdrew from the city to a base near the airport.

The recently arrived Welsh Guards no longer drive their Warrior armored vehicles or Challenger tanks into Amarah. Instead, they patrol along the soft clay ridges of the city outskirts, peering at the town through night-vision equipment that is good for spotting potential attackers but offers no insight into the subterranean world of shifting political alliances.

Lt. Col. Ben Bathurst, the British commanding officer, insists that he has enough local intelligence to keep the province stable. "We have better intelligence here than in some other theaters, because people announce their intentions here," he said wryly. "If someone wants to kill you in Amarah, he tells you to your face."

Still, Maysan's various factions appear prepared to grudgingly tolerate the British presence for now.

"No, no. We don't want the British to leave," said Hassin Arhayf Jassam, a member of the Provincial Governing Council who found himself pulled aside in the lottery of another British checkpoint on a side road last week. "Not yet."

"Even Sadr knows it is impossible to live here without the British right now," said Alaa Mohsin, 35, a grade-school English teacher, as he stood in the midday dust kicked up by a passing British patrol. "Some of the old Baathists are still around.

"We have no problem with the Sunnis — just with the officers of the old regime," he said. "We hope Iraq will stay together. We are not ready to fight everyone in our country."