Monday, January 21, 2008

Sadrists call for a non-sectarian intelligence agency; Government says: Hey, this investigation is going really well

Azzaman reports:

A spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry said security forces had taken apart the organization of Ahmed bin al-Hasan al-Yamani in the provinces of Basra and Nasiriya, having killed 70 of its members and arrested another 300. He said 12 policemen died in the fighting. He said the government seized documents showing that they planned a number of armed operations against participants in the Ashura commemorations. Basra is now calm and residents praised the actions of the police, he said.

The Azzaman reporter goes on to note that a spokesman for the Sadrist movement said Iraq is in need of a new agency for intelligence and information-gathering that can operate on a "sound and professional basis". In specific reference to the events of Basra and Nasiriya on the weekend, he said: "We stress the need for the Iraqi government to undertake the creation of an intelligence and information-gathering agency on a sound and professional basis". Citing the news agency Aswat al-Iraq (whose report in English is here), the reporter says the Sadrist spokesman talked particularly about the need for reliable intelligence about "plans aimed at splitting the ranks of the Iraqi people", via an agency that would "not follow any particular political line", adding that in this the government should "move away from the culture of muhasasa (sectarian allocations)". He said Iraq stands in need of an agency whose task would be to gather information on movements of armed groups, and to foil any plans aimed at disturbing law and order in the country.

The government newspaper Al-Sabah, not surprisingly, stresses what a great job the government authorities are doing, but without saying anything of substance. The number of arrested members of this group is continually growing, and a number of high-ranking people have been sent from Baghdad, all of them agreeing that the operation is going quite well. Just how well? For instance, one of these officials, Khalaf by name, accused a religious group in another country in the region of being behind this [al-Yamani] group, but he refused to name the country. He added that it wasn't the government of that country that is behind this group and financing it, but rather religious groups within that country, which he is not at liberty to disclose the name of, because of the investigation. And he said the government has found important documents and conclusive proofs (he doesn't say of what) that are part of the literature and program of this group.* Another official said the name Ahmad bin al-Hasan is a fictitious name, and they are still looking for someone they believe to be the leader. So far all of the people they have in custody deny ever having met personally with al-Yemani. Finally, in Maysan the authorities have set up a comment center to coordinate monitoring the main roads to Nasirriya and Basra, to round up more fugitives.

The reporter for Al-Hayat, for his part, says the Sadrist movement, and the Mahdi Army in particular, has emerged from the Basra fighting as the biggest winner, having fought much better than the local police, probably largely owing to their experience in having fought the British recently, compared to the inexperience of the police in any large-scale confrontations of this type. The Al-Hayat reporter calls the Mahdist group the Army of Heaven, and he has this to say about them compared to the Sadrists' Mahdi Army.
Observers note that there are major doctrinal differences between the Sadrists and the Army of Heaven, despite the similarity of names between the "Mahdi Army" of the Sadrists and the "Mahdawiyun" as the Army of Heaven are called who are followers of Ahmed bin al-Hasan al-Yemani. Because the latter have no connection with the Najaf hierarchy, and they do not follow any of the [Najaf] authorities, in fact they consider them corrupt and fraudulent. Al-Yemani claims to have his teaching authority directly from the Imam al-Mahdi, the last of the Shiite imams, and he demands allegiance to himself. And those who don't pledge allegiance are "hulk" (death or destruction) according to graffiti on walls in cities of the South, particularly Basra.
The Al-Hayat journalist says the Army of Heaven people used to sell their literature and proselytize and so on in public places, and in fact within sight and hearing of the local security agencies near the old Provincial Building in Basra, and so the fact that these recent events took the authorities by surprise calls into question their competence, and this, by contrast, points up the leading law-and-order role taken in this by the Sadrists and the Mahdi Army in particular.

Putting these reports together, it appears the Mahdi Army played the lead role in the law-and-order part of these events, in Basra at least, but as far as the investigation is concerned, it is in effect saying that the existing agencies are sectarian, and a new, non-sectarian agency needs to be created to deal with situations of this kind, both in terms of intelligence, and in terms of interventions of the kind that would have saved a lot of trouble in Basra.

What these initial reports don't provide is any real enlightenment on the seriousness of any underlying plot. We are told about graffiti-writing, and literature-sales and so on, but the plot is still something that isn't demonstrated. Which is perhaps one of the points the Sadrists have in mind in calling for a non-partisan intelligence agency.

* According to the account in another government-oriented Iraqi paper, Al-Mada, the government referred to the group in question as the "Yemani group or Adherents (ansar) of the Mahdi", suggesting this is the same as the group whose own statement stressed their political position against the Najaf hierarchy, and denied any connection with the so-called Army of Heaven. Visser noted the same thing happened last year, when a politically-oriented group under government attack denied any connection with the Army of Heaven.


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