Mon, Aug 02, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Iraqi chaos starting to breed sectarian strife

`PROMOTION OF VIRTUE' The radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his army of devotees have been blamed for a campaign of intimidation and violence against Iraqi Christians

THE OBSERVER , LONDON

First came the warning: a sheet of paper stuck to the door of Na'aman Khalil's shop ordering him to close his off-license.

"You are corrupting the people of the Earth and you should stop," said the message, signed by a group calling itself the Monotheistic Movement of Jihad.

Five days later, a parcel of and gutting the shop. Four other alcohol stores along the same street in Baghdad's largely Christian al-Ghadir district were bombed that same night.

No one was injured, but the message was clear. After the bombings and a spate of other attacks across Baghdad, most of the city's alcohol shops closed.

"They have achieved their aim. Whatever they wanted, they have got it," said Khalil, 24, who says the bombing cost him 7 million dinars in destroyed stock. "If I open the shop again I don't know what action they would take. Probably they would kill me."

There have been no arrests, but police and many Iraqis blame the attacks and explosions on supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shiite cleric.

A few days before the warning letter arrived, several of al-Sadr's followers met around 30 Shiite tribal leaders in the al-Hekma mosque in Sadr City, the slum area in eastern Baghdad which forms the cleric's powerbase.

They produced an edict in which they listed nine crimes punishable by death. These included theft, kidnapping, robbery, spying "for the Wahabis, al-Qaeda and Saddamists," trafficking in women, and selling alcohol, pornographic CDs and drugs.

The edict, it states, was drawn up because of the "critical and sorrowful situation and lack of security and to serve the common good." Most of the tribal leaders who signed were from Amara, Kut and Nasiriyah, towns in southern Iraq where a Shiite uprising in April was strongest.

"After the end of the dispute between our army and the Americans, our army is working on stability and controlling the looters and other violent groups," said Sheikh Raed al-Kadhimi, one of al-Sadr's aides in Baghdad. He boasted of a number of checkpoints and patrols in Sadr City, and said one had captured several hundred tonnes of stolen sugar, which he said were returned to the government.

The movement, made up largely of young, unemployed urban men, has easily moved into the power vacuum left by the absence of properly trained and equipped Iraqi police and security forces.

"Neither the government nor the police are controlling the situation," said al-Kadhimi. "The al-Sadr tide is the only active tide in the country."

Much of the movement's strength is in its organization. The group has its own religious police, the al-Amur bil Ma'arouf, or Promotion of Virtue.

They have divided Baghdad into three areas: east, west and the central Kadhimiya area, home to the biggest Shiite shrine in the city. Each area has its own unit. In Kadhimiya it numbers around 40; in the eastern sector, around Sadr City, it is at least 100 according to Sayed Adnan al-Safi, an al-Sadr official and editor of one of the movement's newspapers.

"In Kadhimiya we have minimized and controlled places where alcohol is sold. We have controlled the sale of immoral CDs and we have stopped fraud," said al-Safi. "People have begun to understand and are co-operating with us to control the general violence. We are not issuing any punishments ourselves, otherwise we would be considered a state within a state. We pass cases on to the police for punishment."

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