Friday 25 April 2003
Self-appointed Shia ruler issues decrees from barricaded building
First the marines tried to get this dusty town's 200 police officers back to work, but 100 dropped out after local people warned them that only traitors collaborated with America.
Then the police station burned down. It was still smouldering yesterday as frustrated US troops began to realise that governing a people is much harder than defeating one.
"We've all just been issued with non-lethal equipment: batons, riot gas, shields, and stun grenades," Corporal Nathan Braden said.
Two hundred metres away several hundred Iraqis were guarding the gates of the governor's office, trying to ensure no that Americans entered. "No, no to America; no, no to Israel. Yes, yes to unity; yes, yes to Islam," some were chanting.
Pictures of two leading Shia clerics murdered during Saddam Hussein's regime were stuck on lampposts, and some of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, the head of an Iranian-backed Iraqi opposition group. Protesters carried banners with the names of a local sheikh and four other people arrested by the Americans.
Throughout southern Iraq confrontation between Shia Muslims and the US forces is rising.
In Baghdad and most small towns it is still only a battle of words, but in Kut and its province, Wasit, it has gone further.
An anti-American governor is ensconced in the administration building, issuing decrees, delivering food aid, and taking money from the bank to pay local employees.
Night-time shootings are on the increase and the front of the hotel serving as marine headquarters was peppered with bullet holes shortly before dawn yesterday.
Kut was the site of a famous siege in the first world war when 10,000 British troops were surrounded and killed. The Americans are a long way from a similar fate, but they seem at a loss what do do next.
The prophecy that "Iraq will become Palestine" which some Iraqis were making within hours of the US entry into Baghdad is not as far-fetched as it first seemed.
On Wednesday four army lorries and a Humvee were ambushed by 400 people on a bridge over the Tigris. Backpacks and other loose gear were ripped from the back of the Humvee and a window was smashed.
Yesterday stones were thrown when combat engineers brought in bulldozers to remove a barricade outside the town hall.
Two marines were injured and at some point in the ensuing melee Daoud Salman Abu al-Heel, a 25-year-old demonstrator, was killed.
Mohammed Hanin Nasir said he had been walking with him at the head of several hundred people.
"We stopped about four metres in front of the troops. First they poked Daoud with the barrel of a gun, then they fired."
Lieutenant-Colonel Doug Fairfield confirmed that a death had been reported, but added: "We have contacted all our marine units and are satisfied that no shots were fired by the marines."
Three gunships clattered over the town shortly after the killing. Low-flying helicopter gunships, stone-throwing crowds, arrests of popular leaders, and now the first death: the ingredients of an intifada are beginning to appear.
The protesters have three grievances. They want Iraq to be an Islamic republic, they reject US efforts to choose its government, and they are afraid Washington will reimpose Saddam's Ba'ath party.
Hatred of Saddam was on full view yesterday in a long tent which the vigilantes had erected on the front lawn.
A spellbound crowd was watching a video recording of a foreign television documen tary called The Crimes of Saddam, the first chance any had had to see such material. Upstairs in an ornate audience chamber Saeed Abbas, a retired schoolteacher and tribal leader who has taken over as governor, was meeting two dozen distinguished-looking men
"American troops want to appoint their own administration and not listen to the opinion of the people in the street," he said. "The people they have appointed so far were in the Ba'ath party and the previous regime. People mistrust them. They will not cooperate with anything the troops do."
It would make no difference if the Americans succeeded in evicting him. "I can manage these people from the mosque."
Meanwhile, the marines were planning their hearts and minds campaign. The first issue of their free paper, the Wasit Times, shortly to be issued in Arabic, was hot off the press.
It made no mention of government appointees but described how the coalition forces were getting the water and power back on, clearing schools of weapons left by Saddam's forces, and preparing to start paying local government workers.
The marines' spokesman, Major Michael Griffin, said Mr Abbas was self-appointed, represented a minority of Kuts's citizens, and was rumoured to have links with Iran.
He had entered late when the unit's commander, Brigadier-General Rich Natonski, was meeting the advisory council of local leaders on Saturday, announced: "I want to inform you that half the people here are Ba'athists," and was virtually shouted down," Maj Griffin said.
"In Iraq it is almost impossible to find someone who is not a Ba'athist," he added.
"We identify the top person in a department, then go to his deputy and the man below that and ask what the top man was like.
"It is hard for people to understand that. They think being a Ba'athist is automatically bad.
"We want to show we are not here to take over. We are trying to put across the theme 'Iraq for the Iraqis'.
"The goal is to show that by working with us you can get things working the way they were before, minus Saddam."
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