village voice- Powerless- Iraq's troubled police bow to party and tribe

Iraq's troubled police bow to party and tribe - by David Axe
September 30th, 2005 7:02 PM

BASRA, IRAQ—For hours before he was shot to death in a Basra warehouse on August 2, New York City freelance writer Steve Vincent and his Iraqi interpreter, Nooriya Tuaiz, were apparently tortured—this according to statements by residents of this southern city who could hear the screams. It's tragic that, while there is no shortage of police in Basra, none came to Vincent and Tuaiz's aid.

Tragic, but not surprising. As Vincent pointed out in a July 31 op-ed piece in The New York Times, Basra's 7,000 cops are all but subject to the city's religious parties, few of which would object to another dead Westerner. After initially linking Vincent's murder to an allegedly romantic relationship with Tuaiz that enraged religious and tribal enforcers, many observers are now blaming the very police Vincent had criticized in his Times piece. Information from the FBI relayed by Vincent's wife in Manhattan indicates that the killers indeed claimed to be cops.

Still, no one knows for sure who killed Vincent—not yet at least, despite the FBI's sending a team to Basra to investigate. The uncertainty raises questions about the true position and power of police in this oil-rich Shiite stronghold, the economic capital of Iraq.

Perhaps the meanest part of this mean city is Habbaniyah, a strip of poor housing nicknamed "Shia Flats" by British forces. The neighborhood was the target of a September 7 bombing by Sunni insurgents that killed 16 people. Such is Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's sway here that the local police chief, 30-year-old Captain Ali Mater, says he's powerless. Habbaniyah businessman Kadem Homoed, 58, says tribes and religious parties sort out most of the crimes.

British army major Andy Hadfield, 37, deployed to Basra, says police here won't touch crimes perpetrated by or against tribes and political parties. He says the tribes and parties themselves settle accounts. How any crimes at all fall outside the tribal/party rubric in a town so dominated by these groups is a mystery to Hadfield. Coalition officers struggle to understand southern Iraq's true power structure.

At the British Army's Camp Chindit in the town of Az Zubayr, west of Basra, an interpreter has sketched a chart of tribal relationships for the British commander, Major Mick Aston. The chart is a maze of names. Aston says he stares at it every day but still can't make sense of it.

Chindit is a former Iraqi prison. There are crude hooks in the ceilings. Aston jokes that the hooks were for ceiling fans, but he knows better. They were for people. The British occupation has brought foreign aid and some investment and it has facilitated elections, but that hasn't changed the fact that Az Zubayr is fundamentally a tribal town: corrupt and violent, ruled by thugs with guns. There are a thousand cops in this town of 450,000, but they have little real power....

village voice > news > Powerless by David Axe


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