Assassins

A last Basra dispatch from Steven Vincent

Ask foreign correspondents in Iraq about Steven Vincent, and what you’ll hear in their voices is respect tinged with fear. A New York art critic turned war reporter, Vincent was one of the few Western journalists to venture far from the safety of Baghdad’s tightly guarded hotels. He set up camp in Basra—the city most often held up as the Iraq war’s success story—and covered the place as if he were on the general-assignment beat in New York or Cleveland: hitting the pavement, listening to people, exposing graft, corruption, and duplicity. An unreconstructed idealist who believed that the war should bring democracy to Iraqis, he grew increasingly disappointed with what he saw as “fascist” tendencies in the country’s nascent institutions; he wrote about the growing repression of women and the role of religious fundamentalists in the police force. This past July, he filed a story for this magazine on how political assassins have established a reign of terror in Basra; with the piece came an email noting that he’d been told a story like this could get a reporter "disappeared."

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Two weeks later, on August 3, Vincent and his translator were kidnapped by men who, witnesses say, wore police uniforms and drove an unmarked police car. They were taken to a warehouse, interrogated for five hours, then—their hands still bound—told to run. As they fled, they were shot multiple times. The translator survived, but Vincent was killed. This is the story he wrote for Mother Jones. —The Editors

Tears flowed freely at the funeral last May of a man murdered in the streets of Basra by unknown assailants. “He was a good man,” said the victim’s nephew, an Associated Press stringer named Abdul. True, he was a member of the hated Baath Party, but he had “clean hands,” Abdul added, and never participated in any crimes. “But the killers who walk Basra’s streets today don’t make such distinctions. They take revenge on anyone they wish. To these people, life is cheap.”

“These people” are widely believed to be members of militant Shia organizations, who have targeted for liquidation ex-Baathists as well as many Sunni leaders. These well-armed groups carry out some killings themselves and rely for others on sympathetic members of Basra’s police department. But many say the execution orders come from outside. “Certain foreign intelligence services draw up lists of people they wish to eliminate for purposes of revenge or simply to destabilize Basra,” says one Sunni sheikh. “The trigger fingers may be Iraqi, but the brains behind the murders are foreign.”

Others see an even larger conspiracy. “Our sectarian problems are new,” says Khalid Ubaid, the head imam of the Usama bin Zaid Mosque in Zubair, southwest of Basra. “Throughout history, Sunnis and Shia have joined together to fight imperialism. This conflict has only come about because the U.S. and Britain—together with its Iranian and Israeli allies—want to divide and conquer Iraq.”

Whoever is behind the killings, they are busy. In a single week last May, for example, assassins murdered more than 100 ex-Baathists and other Sunni Muslims (most, but not all, Baathi are Sunnis). On June 9, terrorists kidnapped a Sunni sheikh named Abdul Salaam Alwan; nine days later, his bullet-ridden body was found beside his car. (The vehicle was untouched, a signal from the killers that the murder was politically motivated, rather than a criminal hijacking.) Two other Sunni clerics have also been slain this June—again by unknown assassins. In other cases, Shia militias have forced Sunnis from their jobs.

The result is terror among Basra’s Sunni minority. “Wherever we go now, people accuse us of being Wahhabi, of belonging to Al Qaeda, or supporting Zarqawi,” says Najat, a young Sunni woman who works for a Western aid organization. “We hear what’s going on in the street, we see the killings, and we are afraid for our lives.”

Things have gotten worse since the January 30 elections, when Shiite religious parties seized control of Basra’s government. Of the 41 members of Basra Province’s Governing Council, for example, 35 have connections to Shiite groups, and an official at the Iraqi Ministry of Defense claims that at least 50 percent of the council has ties to Iran. Perhaps even worse, Basra’s police force is heavily compromised by sectarian loyalties. Last May, the city’s police chief admitted to a Western reporter that 50 percent of his force is “affiliated” with Islamic groups. Another cop recently boasted to this reporter that 75 percent of his comrades were followers of populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. “After the elections, we expected security problems and political oppression,” says Jamal Khaza’al, director of the Basra branch of the Islamic Religious Party. “But in many ways the situation is worse than we feared.”

One professional woman, who along with her physician husband had joined the Baath Party in order to further her career, told me that her family welcomed the overthrow of Saddam, but lived in fear of the de-Baathifi-cation committees—made up in large part of armed Shia vigilantes who seek to purge Iraqi society of members of the hated regime through pressure, intimidation, and murder. One night, armed men kidnapped the doctor as he left the hospital. Another gang broke into her house, firing pistols into the walls and ceilings, terrifying her children. “They returned my husband unharmed a few days later, but threatened to kill him if he returned to the hos- pital. But we can do nothing now,” she said. “We are helpless.”

Not every Sunni feels the long shadow of Shia vengeance; many Sunnis in Basra live in peaceful accord, and intermarriage between the two sects remains common. According to Thawra Youssif Yaa’koub, a Sunni professor of drama at Basra University, “Mainstream Shia parties are not steeped in blood. I may not agree with them, but they are not threatening my life.”

It’s in the more radical religious parties that the thirst for retribution is strongest. One especially feared group is called “Vengeance of God.” Another is called As-shahouda, a reference to Muslim prayer. Despite the party’s reputation, General Secretary Sayyid Darghar denies its members resort to violence. “We firmly believe in de-Baathification,” he says. “It is not necessary to kill those people, however, just to exclude them from power.”

Despite such denials, the sectarian terror continues in Basra, targeting even Sunnis with no connection to the Baath Party. One Sunni sheikh who lives in the city’s old quarter says he recently received a letter from a Shia group “threatening me with harm if I did not stop talking about how Iraq is one nation, not a country divided by religion.” To Najat, the young woman working for the Western aid group, the situation has come down to a simple feeling shared by many of her fellow Basrawis: “To be a Sunni in Basra today is a crime.”

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