Nermeen Al-Mufti visits Al-Madaen, the city at the centre of last week's rumours of shia hostage taking, while Mohamed El-Anwar assesses the performance of the Iraqi leadership in Baghdad
April 21, 2005 - For almost a week media coverage of Iraq has been dominated by reports of a hostage-taking crisis and sectarian tension in the city of Al-Madaen. Early reports said Sunni militants had taken scores of Shia captive and were demanding Shia residents evacuate from the city.
Sunni and Shia clerics -- particularly the Al-Sadr movement -- warned the reports were a fabrication intended to stir up sectarianism. But the Western media, particularly in the US, continued reporting on the incident. On Monday, when Iraqi forces raided the city, the picture became a little clearer. They found no hostages and met with little resistance.
Addressing the Iraqi National Assembly on Monday Interior Minister Falah Al-Naquib accused Iranian intelligence of seeking to incite sectarian tension in Iraq.
Others offered different interpretations of what had taken place in Al-Madaen. A source in the Iraqi Islamic Party said the hostage crisis was part of a conspiracy to rob the city of its Iraqi identity while the head of the Sunni Waqf, Adnan Mohamed Salman, said the dispute, which he claimed was over property, was tribal and not sectarian. Sabah Kadhim, an Interior Ministry spokesperson, blamed a section of Iraqi MPs -- he would not name them -- for inciting tensions when they exaggerated the events in the city.
"The whole saga was fabricated in order to serve the narrow sectarian interests of a group of MPs," Kadhim told reporters on Monday. "Those involved are not concerned that by making up something like this they are undermining Iraq's security and social fabric."
Those involved are members of the United Iraqi Alliance, the predominantly Shia grouping that won the majority of votes in 30 January elections.
On Monday Al-Madaen was calm. The city, situated 30km east of Baghdad, was once the capital of the Sassanid Empire. The Arabs seized it in 737 AD. Parts of the Sassanid court are still standing, and is known locally as Khosro's Arch, named after one of Persia's best known rulers. Prophet Mohamed's close associate, Salman Al-Farisi is buried in the city. The arch, Al-Farisi's tomb and a luxury tourism complex built in the 1970s once made the city a tourist attraction. The tourism complex is now out of business and militants have taken control of the roads linking Al-Madaen to Baghdad and Kut. Several trucks and military vehicles have been attacked and occasionally civilians have been assaulted.
In mid-March, gunmen clashed for hours with police forces. The battle left dozens of policemen dead, according to a statement issued at the time by the Ministry of Interior. Since then police raids have become common in the city and dozens of gunmen have been arrested.
The road to Al-Madaen passes Iraq's nuclear installations. They were looted in the aftermath of the invasion by locals who took away barrels, which had been used to store radioactive materials, and used them to store water and food-stuffs. There is a potentially devastating public health crisis in the making.
The dome of Salman Al-Farisi Mosque greets you at the entrance of town. Police and National Guard vehicles stand by, alongside US vehicles. The police, National Guard and US troops are carrying out large- scale searches.
Mohamed Al-Obeidi, a shop owner in the onetime tourism complex, says the town is inhabited by a mixture of Shias and Sunnis. Most of the Shias are from the southern Darraj clan but have been in Al- Madaen for decades. The majority of Sunnis are Al- Daylam, which has extensions in Falluja, Youssefiya, Latifiya, Mahmoudiya and Hella. "Sunnis and Shias often intermarry," Al-Obeidi remarks.
The first Shia official to be assassinated in the city was Mahmoud Al-Madaeni, representative of Ayatollah Al-Sistani, late last year. It is believed the attackers were outsiders.
Ali, a Shia resident who preferred not to mention his surname or job, believes that "it is clear the sectarianism created by the former regime and reinforced by former US administrator Paul Bremer and the now disbanded Governing Council have left a schism in Iraqi society."
"The civil war to which they often refer is in the interests of several domestic and foreign parties. But this war never happened. Now they are harping on sectarianism again. In this city you can find extremists, both Sunni and Shia, but you also find clergymen, both Sunni and Shia, who urge unity," he said.
This is particularly true now that the Association of Muslim Scholars has stated that terror and legitimate resistance are not the same.
Hours before the hostage hoax was exposed many of Al-Madaen's residents did not have a clue as to what was going on in the city. Some said that even if there were hostages the reason for taking them was not to force the Shia out of the city. Some reports said the tension was due to a rape incident, information attributed to National Assembly members. The locals dispute this claim. A statement by the Ministry of Defence said the army had freed 15 hostages held by religious fundamentalists, giving no further details. Then another statement issued by the Interior Ministry said "there were no hostages in the city in the first place."
Mohamed Aziz, a Shia student, said that armed gunmen carrying loudspeakers went around after Friday prayers, calling on Shias to leave the town. But none of the locals I met was ready to corroborate the story.
As we were about to leave the city Iraqi National Guard searches continued in the outskirts for an unspecified number of hostages.
Pushing for civil war
ALAL Talabani's call to dispatch Kurdish and Shia militias to put down the insurgency in Sunni areas will pave the way for civil war, believe Iraqi religious and political leaders
Iraqi officials, both religious and political, reacted angrily to President Jalal Talabani's proposal to deploy the Peshmerge, the Kurdish militia, and the Badr Brigade, the military wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, in areas where insurgents are strong.
Talabani said this week that the Peshmerge and Badr Brigade were capable of ending insurgency and terrorism. In the first official response to his statement Iraq's interior minister, Falah Al-Naquib, told the London- based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that using the Badr Brigade would pose a threat to national security.
"Those who want to join the Iraqi army and National Guard are welcome to do so, though not on basis of sectarianism. Their first loyalty must be to Iraq and not to any political party," Al- Naquib said on Wednesday.
Calls to disarm Iraq's militias have been made by several Iraqi politicians. Iyad Allawi, the former prime minister, sought during his tenure to disarm all militias. The two Kurdish parties resisted, insisting the Peshmerge keep its arms.
Talabani's statement also met anger from Sunni politicians. Both the Islamic Iraqi Party and the Association of Muslim Scholars condemned the statement as paving the way for civil war.
"This call is the beginning of a road that can only lead to civil war," said Ammar Wajeeh of the Iraqi Islamic Party. "Giving either the Peshmerge or Badr Brigade security responsibilities is not in Iraq's interests. We should rely on Iraqi national forces, though only after they are purged of corrupt elements."
"Using these militias to put down the resistance bodes ill for Iraq's future. We must have other mechanisms to restore security," said Abdel-Salam Al-Kobeisi of the Association of Muslim Scholars.