Sun, Jan 16, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Factional unrest is dividing Shiites in southern Iraq

AMBIVALENT During the election run-up, anti-Iranian and anti-authority sentiments are almost palpable in this predom-inantly Shiite community

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BASRA, IRAQ

In this largest city of Iraq's Shiite South, nearly everyone plans to vote in the national elections on Jan. 30, and most expect the coalition led by giant Shiite religious parties to win here handsomely.

This would seem to be a time for rejoicing by the Shiites of Basra as their long-downtrodden majority appears likely, at last, to claim its rightful powers. Major Shiite leaders here express confidence in their prospects, and in their ability to reach out to other groups.

But there are undercurrents of suspicion and dissent, too, on the streets of this sprawling, junk-strewn city. When people talk politics, they often argue over rumors, charges and countercharges of perfidy that are ricocheting among Shiite factions:

Were Iranian agents behind the attempted assassination of a secular Shiite leader last weekend? Is the Badr Brigade, the supposedly defanged militia of the largest party, still a secret powerhouse? Will the impatient followers of the renegade cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stay peaceful?

Virtually all of Iraq's Shiites revere Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and most say they will heed his order to vote. The mainstream Shiite parties, running under his umbra, dismiss the suspicions about Iran or secret militias as so much gossip that will evaporate over time.

"Iraq has been in the dark ages, and the transition from darkness to light takes time and exacts a toll," said Salah al-Mussawi, local chief of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. His party, known as Sciri, is the largest group in the front-running coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance.

To some degree, the divisions roiling here represent the natural spectrum of a huge community that encompasses the secular and the devout; those who stayed through the Saddam Hussein years and those who lived in exile; those forming a new establishment and the frustrated legions of jobless youths.

The big question, for Basra as well as for all Iraq, is whether such resentments can be channeled into something like ordinary politics in the years ahead, as US officials hope and mainstream leaders predict. Or will they erupt into violent partisan conflict?

Perhaps most delicate for the Shiites will be relations with al-Sadr and his militia, a large, armed group that feels deeply alienated and has clashed with other Shiites in the past.

Al-Sistani's supporters bitterly remember the murder of a top cleric, Sheik Abdel Majid al-Khoei, 50, as he returned from exile to Najaf in early 2003. Followers of al-Sadr were arrested and a warrant was issued for al-Sadr himself.

Al-Sadr's followers, in turn, say they will not forget the lack of support they got from mainstream Shiite parties last year as they battled US and British troops.

Basra, though hardly peaceful by any normal standard, has in recent months had less political violence than central Iraq. The gunfire heard on many nights, people here note, is apt to be that of criminal gangs or warring tribes, not insurgents.

But tensions ratcheted upward this week after three suicide car bombings -- two of them at police facilities and one at the home of an Islamic politician. (None caused fatalities apart from the bombers.)

Nearly everyone in Basra seems to believe that those were the opening salvo of an anti-election campaign by invading Sunni militants.

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