Government Fights Militia in Southern Iraq

With Salam Talib

Southern Iraq saw the biggest outbreak of government violence against Shi’ite groups this week as Iraqi government troops attacked followers of Ayatollah Mahmoud Hassani al-Sarkhi.

“The government raided the religious school of the followers of Hassani,” explains Sarmad Abdul-Karem, who heads up the agency Iraq4All news. “Hassani supporters defended the school and came from every place to Karbala to try to save the school and get the government out. Ten people were killed, 30 to 40 were injured, and 200 people were detained.”

Ayatollah Hassani is a conservative cleric who stands both against the American occupation and Iranian influence in the country. While the Shi’ite groups that control the Iraqi government – like the dominant Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq – receive direct support from Tehran, Hassani instigated his followers to attack the Iranian consulate in Basra in June.

This is the first time his followers have clashed with Iraqi authorities, though, and the fighting quickly spun out of control.

According to Ali, a special forces officer in Hilla, 30 miles away:

"In Hilla, his supporters came to the main checkpoint to enter Karbala from Hilla. They killed one person from the military and they took all their weapons. They came from all over – from Basra and all the South and they took all their weapons. They came from all over – from Basra and all the South until they reached Babylon. The police at the checkpoint didn’t allow them to enter Karbala. … Then it got violent. Hassani ordered them to walk if the government wouldn’t allow them to drive their cars. So they left their cars and walked to Karbala. And yesterday, early in the morning, they arrived in Karbala, and it was a very tense situation. The government had to declare a curfew for three days."

Like many observers, Ali was surprised at the outbreak of fighting. He says that until recently, Ayatollah Hassani didn’t appear to have a militia.

“It seems to be that they just got the ability to buy weapons, because if they had weapons why didn’t they use them from the beginning?” he asked. “Imagine: if he wanted to do something new, why did the Americans never say anything about it?"

The U.S. military has surprisingly turned a blind eye to the conflict.

“I think the Americans are just watching what’s happening, because this is a conflict between Shia and Shia,” argued Abdul-Karem. “They want to see the result of what’s happening – to see if it’s in their interest.”

Abdul-Karem believes American officials privately delight in seeing primarily Shi’ite Iraqi forces battling the Shi’ite militia of Hassani. He believes Shi’ites throughout the Middle East feel empowered after Hezbollah stood its ground against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

Regardless, the fight between Hassani and the Iraqi government has calmed down for now. After the intervention of tribal and religious leaders, Hassani agreed to a cease-fire after the Iraqi government agreed to return his school and the bodies of those killed in the conflict. The Iraqi government also agreed to stop all raids against his movement.