Raid on Iraq: Danger grows for isolated minority: The Shias

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THE SHIAS in southern Iraq, who Washington says are protected by the allied no- fly zone, are facing a worsening plight on several fronts. Increased repression by Saddam Hussein's regime, the worsening economic situation, and a rift within the Iraqi National Congress (INC) umbrella organisation of opposition groups, have left the Shias feeling more and more isolated.

Shia dissidents in London say that the allied no-fly zone has reduced military operations against the Shias, but the Iraqi authorities have over the past two months begun a purge of dissident elements. They have arrested people associated with the uprising in 1991, noticeably in the towns of Najaf, al-Amarah and Basra. And they have set up roadblocks and instituted other searches as the security apparatus consolidates its hold, according to Shia dissidents.

As a result 'it is unlikely that the south will rise up against Saddam Hussein', said Laith Kubba, a leading Shia intellectual. Others report a carrot and stick approach, with Baghdad offering bribes to loyal tribes. At the same time, the population is short of food. Those in the marshes - a small minority of the Shias in the south - do not even receive the government rations. There is unease among the Shias that they did not get the kind of aid provided to the Kurds in the north under the Provide Comfort programme. Many feel the outside world in its obsession with military strikes and finding ways to unseat President Saddam does not care for their uprising and the broader humanitarian issues.

On a political level, the feeling of victimisation is one reason why the Shias, with the exception of Sheikh Bahr al-Oloum, have in effect withdrawn from the Executive Council of the INC. Their differences are both personal and substantial. Many in the Iraqi opposition oppose the prominent role played by Ahmed Chalabi, the chairman of the INC executive committee. Criticism of Mr Chalabi is mainly on a personal level, because of his past financial dealings, but it also contains differences in substance. One Sunni nationalist, Abdel Sitar Ed-Duri, resigned from the INC executive committee.

Laith Kubba's concerns are with policy more than personalities. 'My deepest worry is the politicisation of the ethnic differences, of insisting of percentages and quotas. Basically the INC went too far, in seeking political federation for the Kurds, not administrative federation.' That is, by insisting that the three-man presidency council should have one Kurd, one Shia and one Sunni, the INC is reinforcing the sectarian differences of Iraqis rather than overcoming them. Not only Shias claim to be active in promoting dissent in the south. Sabah Kadhim said his group, the Independent Iraqi Alliance, had recruited army officers who had defected in the south.

According to Mr Kadhim, the United States is still targeting the south as the place where pressure would be brought to bear on Mr Saddam. 'Washington is working on a covert operation . . . Their plan is to destroy military facilities in the south, in order to prevent the army from stopping the uprising,' he said. Such an assertion of an uprising in progress is at odds with the gloomier assessment by the Shia groups.