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Iraqi Forces Clash with Shi'a Militia in Karbala

Gunbattles broke out this past week in the Iraqi holy city of Karbala between Iraqi Security Forces and the followers of the Shi’a cleric Mahmud al-Hassani (also called al-Sharkhi), who is described in Western news reports as being hostile to the United States (AP, AP). This account is according to the Associated Press:

…The fighting, which began early Tuesday, spread to at least four other parts of Karbala by afternoon in violation of a curfew. Gunmen in civilian clothes could be seen firing AK-47 rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades at army patrols and running away. Soldiers fired indiscriminately at groups of gunmen roaming the streets.

The violence started after Iraqi soldiers raided the office of cleric Mahmoud al-Hassani before dawn, apparently because his supporters had taken over a field behind the building for security reasons, said Ahmed al-Ghazali, an aide to the cleric. He claimed the soldiers opened fire but the cleric’s supporters did not respond. Army officials could not be immediately reached to confirm the claim…

It sounds like AP may have gotten a one-sided version of events here; where there is a legal security force and an illegal militia, the security forces will need to have robust rules of engagement to fire at men in civilian clothes carrying weapons in the streets if they are going to survive. The Iraqi newspaper Al-Mada reports that the initial conflict was caused when Hassani made a statement on Iraqi TV urging his militia to gather in Karbala, and government forces decided to cut them off from the city so that security control might remain in the hands of official forces.

Al-Rafidayn reported on the issue, and it included a statement from supporters of Hassani but notes that he agreed to respect the authority of the government. It further reported that Hawza al-Sadiq, Hassani’s office, was placed under guard, and the entire city was placed under curfew until Friday. It is clear from the article that the local civilian provincial administration was involved in calling in the security forces, as they are described as pressuring Hassani to obey the law. The truce agreement itself is between them and Hassani, not Hassani and the security forces.

A separate article in Al-Rafidayn reported that when the dust had settled, five had been killed, including two from the security services, 17 injured and 281 militiamen taken prisoner. This same article quotes a variety of businessmen by name as complaining about the increase in the price of food due to restrictions on vehicles entering the city during the week, and as a result people couldn’t afford food. One seller of vegetables, Ali Hussein, said that “We understand what the security services are doing because of events which have happened here in the city but prices have increased and this is the law of the market…” It is notable that Karbala citizens are willing to be quoted by name both supporting the government against a local cleric and complaining about the conditions brought about by government actions.

Iraqi Shi’ism has a loose authority structure that allows for individual clerics to sponsor political parties and/or militias loyal to themselves while still giving token deference to the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, recognized as Iraq’s senior religious figure. The cleric involved here, Hassani, is not an ayatollah, but nevertheless he has armed men working outside legitimate security services working for him. Karbala is considered to be the holiest city in Shi’a Islam, being the site of the martyrdom of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who had risen up against the then-ruling Umayyad dynasty (661-750 AD), viewing it as unislamic.

This is how things need to work for order to be maintained in Iraq and the legitimacy of the state to be preserved - no American troops were involved as Iraqi Security Forces troops and local police responded to a request by local civilian authorities to maintain order against a militia. While initial reports indicated that the security forces were having difficulties keeping militiamen off the streets, they forced Hassani to agree to a statement favorable to the government, and appear to have prevented a large-scale incident.