Armed Militants Attack
Freedoms In Once-Liberal Basra

By Geoffrey York
The Globe and Mail

Gangs of armed militants, operating with almost complete impunity, are terrorizing the streets of Iraq's second-largest city, assaulting and killing alcohol and video merchants in a campaign to impose their rules on what was once the most liberal city in the country.
British occupying troops have been powerless to prevent the wave of targeted attacks in Basra, and Iraq's new civilian police are unable or unwilling to arrest the gunmen, believed to be members of Islamic extremist organizations.
In the latest attack, a 43-year-old woman was killed Monday night by four men who shot her six times with pistols at the entrance to her video shop in one of Basra's busiest shopping districts.
On the same night, gunmen fired shots at Basra's last remaining alcohol vendors, who have already been forced to close their shops and sell their wares from hideouts on the street.
Last week, at least five people were shot dead by masked men who attacked a group of liquor vendors with pistols and Kalashnikov rifles. Some of the gunmen were riding in Iraqi police vehicles, witnesses said.
In the past few months, at least nine vendors have been killed with grenades or machine guns and dozens of shops have been firebombed or hit with grenades. Several video dealers have been kidnapped and assaulted by extremist groups, according to vendors. And many have received warnings or "inspections" from radical religious groups who order them not to sell anything "pornographic."
Musicians have also been attacked. "They are imposing their views with force," said a Basra shop owner who witnessed Monday night's attack and took the woman's body to hospital.
"It is happening step-by-step: first alcohol, then videos and music." Perhaps most disturbing is the absence of any serious investigation by the Iraqi police, who are supposed to be replacing the U.S.-led military coalition as the main security force in Iraq.
An hour after Monday's attack, there was still a pool of blood in front of the video shop but the Iraqi police had already left the site after asking only a few questions.
Several witnesses said the police spent just 10 minutes at the scene, without taking any statements from them. "That's the way it works with the Iraqi police," said the shop owner. "Anyone who kills someone will get away with it."
Iraqi police say they lack the resources to solve the killings of alcohol and video vendors. They don't have fingerprinting or forensic equipment, and they don't have enough vehicles or radios to get to crime scenes quickly, they say. "We don't even have a homicide department," said Major Mohammed Al-Lami, chief of the police station that investigated Monday night's murder.
Captain Geraint Davis, a British military officer in Basra, said the coalition is trying to control the religious militias. In an incident in December, the troops rescued seven people who had been kidnapped by an Islamic group that was "educating" them about Islamic rules, he said.
Major Tim Smith, a spokesman for coalition forces in Basra, said the coalition is helping Iraqi police to collect evidence to solve the killings. "There is a problem and we have to deal with it," he said. "We have to redouble our efforts."
With its international port and its close connections to the outside world, Basra has always been the most liberal and secular of Iraq's cities. Several hundred merchants, mostly Christians, traditionally sold alcohol in the city. But all that has changed drastically since last year's U.S.-led invasion.
Islamic groups, kept under a tight leash during the Saddam Hussein regime, now operate freely in Basra with their own militias. Officially the militias cannot carry weapons, but it is widely acknowledged that most are armed.
Well organized and well financed, the militant groups are determined to impose strict religious rules on the city. Outside a Catholic church in Basra at Sunday services, former alcohol merchant Bassam Toma described how he was attacked by masked men with hand grenades and rocket-propelled grenades last summer.
He still has shrapnel in his eye and leg and he has lost vision in one eye. Sixteen people were injured in the attack, he said. The extremist groups are winning the war, Mr. Toma said.
"They have 99-per-cent control now. Nobody is resisting them. They do whatever they want to do. They are strong, they have new cars, rocket-propelled grenades. They're even working with the police." Only a handful of people still sell alcohol.
To dodge the gunmen, they have switched to bicycles, and keep their wares in secret hideouts. "It's easier to escape on bikes," said one young vendor. "We could get a bullet in the head any time. But what can I do? There is no other work. Should I steal?"
The vendor narrowly escaped death in last week's shooting that left five dead. He said he hid behind a woman, hoping the gunmen would not shoot her, but they did.
At an outdoor market in Basra, video-disc vendors say Islamic militants often visit their stalls, posing as customers and asking if they have pornographic videos. Several vendors who sold pornography were kidnapped and severely beaten by the radicals, they said, and some were so frightened that they quit the video business.
Another video merchant, 24-year-old Rafeeq Yaqoub, is thinking about quitting the business because of declining sales. "Some people might think you are selling pornography and attack you," he said. "It was better under Saddam Hussein. Nowadays you can expect anyone to come in and kill you."
© 2004 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.



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