Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Committees of Public Safety

Back on July 25th in "It's Election Season In America" I made a passing reference to Al-Hakim's proposals to set up neighbourhood watch committees:

  • Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, had urged the creation of "people's committees." - If you think this sounds suspiciously like "Committee of Public Safety" you'd be right.

SCIRI have been quietly pushing this ever since. Today's London Times has a report on their progress to date.

Shia community watchdogs 'will spy for death squads'
From Hassan Jarah in Najaf and Ned Parker in Baghdad

A POWERFUL Iraqi Shia political party has set up neighbourhood watch groups, which Sunni politicians fear will feed intelligence to death squads.

The "popular committees" have been established in Najaf by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) without the Government's permission. It has ignored the commitment of Nouri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister, to dismantle the country's militias, which have infiltrated security forces and helped to push Iraq to the brink of civil war.

The Sciri has its own 15,000-man militia, the Badr Corps, which Sunnis blame, along with the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, for much of Iraq's sectarian violence. Sunnis are threatening to form their own citizen groups. "Sciri's proposal aims to bring new militias into communities. This is unacceptable," said the MP Ayad al- Samarrai, who belongs to Iraq's largest Sunni political group, the Islamic Party.


In the Shia holy city of Najaf, the council has not waited for the Government's reply. The party has already sent the committees out on to the streets.

Committee members told The Times that more than 150 people had enlisted. They said that the groups were divided into 10-man squads, including a cell leader. Members receive a $50 (£26) monthly salary and the squad leader receives $100. The groups hold weekly meetings with the Badr Corps and relay intelligence about suspicious visitors to neighbourhoods, they said.

The committees started work 20 days ago for the Muslim holiday, Isra and Miraj, which commemorates the Muslim prophet Mohammed's ascension to heaven.

The Sciri is apparently using the committees to make inroads into the territory of its Shia political rival, Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Madhi Army has thousands of recruits. It has established a popular committee in the al-Sadr stronghold of Kufa, which neighbours Najaf.

Falah Abdul Majid Qassim, a Sciri committee member in Kufa, said: "Our tasks will be to observe the performance of the police and the security services and also to provide basic services for locals."

Some Najaf and Kufar residents are worried that the new watchdog groups will only make their lives more dangerous.

Hider Mohammed Jasim, a 30-year-old labourer, said: "It may have its positive impact but its negative ones will be much bigger. It might help in securing some areas but if the situation remained unstable then we will have dangerous clashes between these different groups like these public committees and Mahdi Army. "

Link to article. (Emphasis mine - mfi)

Where these committees are operating is important. The three holy cities of Karbala, Najaf, and Kufa are in close proximity to one another, it's impossible to overstate their significance to the Shia - a quick reminder.

  • Karbala is dedicated to Ḥusayn ibn 'Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib (Imam Husayn).
  • Najaf is dedicated to Alī ibn Abī Tālib (Imam Ali) and is the centre of Shia political power in Iraq.
  • Kufa was founded by Sa'ad ibn Abi Waqqas (one of the companions of the prophet) and was Imam Ali's capital. Imam Ali was murdered there by Kharajites while he was performing morning prayers in the mosque.

Of the three Kufa is the poorest and Muqdata al-Sadr who often preaches there has a considerable presence in the town. It's been the scene of several bombing attacks. The attack on Iranian Pilgrims on July 6th, and the attack on labourers gathering to seek jobs on July 18th were the two most serious and (as with the attacks on Sadr city,) both attacks were aimed at undermining Al-Sadr's movement.

There's an intense struggle going on between al-Hakim who is backed by the "old guard" establishment and the American occupiers and al-Sadr. Al-Sadr's movement speaks to, and for, the poor and disenfranchised Shia who believe that only the Sadrists have an agenda to alleviate their economic and social plight. That's why Falah Abdul Majid Qassim made that point about providing basic services for the locals in Kufa. Al-Hakim has fairly solid support in both Najaf and Karbala. Both of those cities are very prosperous largely because so many pilgrims go there. His support in Kufa is lot shakier, he's taking a leaf out of al-Sadr's book and creating a movement that supplies "cradle to grave" services. What the Times is reporting is the opening move in that strategy.


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