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Outside View: Iraq's Terror Gangs

Washington (UPI) Oct 29, 2005
While Iraqis went to the polls to vote on the new constitution, the world was confronted with yet another terrifying tale from 'democratic' Iraq: the proliferation of terror gangs.

Mostly spin offs of Shia and Kurdish militia, these groups regularly carry out kidnappings, beatings and assassinations.

Iraqi sources confirm that terror squads are today the ruling backbone of a country increasingly falling under the control of ethnic groups which rely exclusively upon the use of force. They are a powerful tool in the hands of religious leaders and politicians who exercise their authority and force consensus through the violent actions of these groups.

"If you try to oppose those who control the ethnic gangs you will be punished," said a human rights activist in Amarah, a town north of Basra. "A small bomb will be delivered to your house and you would not even know who has brought it."

The link between politicians and terror squads is confirmed by the ordeal of Rory Carroll, a Guardian newspaper correspondent in Iraq. Kidnapped by a Shia gang, he was freed after 36 hours thanks to the intervention of Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister, Ahmad Chalabi, who brokered a deal with the captors.

Not so lucky was Steven Vincent, an American freelance reporter found dead in Basra last August after he and his Iraqi translator were abducted at gunpoint by a Shia squad. A few days earlier, in his Red Zone web-log, Vincent had accused Basra's police force of being riddled with members of radical Shia political groups which protected the gangs. Shia terror gangs, he added, were behind a series of gruesome ethnic assassinations plaguing the city.

Since last May, Iraqi authorities estimate that at least 65 mysterious assassinations have taken place in Basra. The identity of the victims, including Steven Vincent, seems to confirm the political nature of the killing. Among them were a lieutenant colonel in the Defense Ministry, a Baath Party-era police officer, a merchant with ties to Saddam Hussein's government, two university professors and a municipal official who had tried to combat corruption.

Against this background, Mohammed Musabah, the governor of Basra, acknowledged to a Washington Post journalist that the police were infiltrated by religious parties. Basra's police chief, Hassan Sawadi, even admitted to the Guardian that he had lost control over three-quarters of the city's police force and that militiamen inside its ranks were using their position to assassinate opponents.

Many believe that the long arm of Tehran is behind the terror squads which terrify the region. "Down Basra way, the country most preoccupying the locals is not America, but that brooding, seething, over-cleric'd Mordor to the east, Iran," wrote Steven Vincent in his web log before being assassinated. "Whether it is supporting religious parties, smuggling oil and gas, sabotaging the energy infrastructure, orchestrating sectarian assassinations or other neighborly deeds, residents of Basra detect the stealthy hand of Tehran in nearly every aspect of their lives."

The mysterious killings in Basra are a chilling replica of the chain murders which, a decade ago, plagued Iran. Between 1995 and 1999, 47 people were found murdered in Iran under mysterious circumstances. The victims included secularist writers and politicians as well as leaders of ethnic and religious minorities: Sunni Muslim clerics and Christian priests.

In addition, several people were reported missing and unmarked graves were found around Tehran and other major cities. On the whole, the chain murders allowed the ruling regime to create a climate of fear and terror to smash its political opponents. At the center of the chain murders controversy was Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's president from 1989 to 1997.

Parviz Davani, a human rights activist, was one of the victims of Rafsanjani's reign of terror. He was last seen in August 1998 leaving his residence in Tehran. He had been released from prison only a few weeks prior to his disappearance.

His family and colleagues in the Organization of Left Unity for Democracy in Iran, which he co-founded in 1997, believe that chain murders and the abduction of Iranian journalists and opponent political leaders is part of a long tradition of the Iranian fundamentalist regime. In the '90s it appeared "under a newly reconstructed vigilante organization supported by the conservatives inside the governing structure and most prominently the Iranian judiciary system controlled by the Islamic hardliners."

In 'democratic' Iraq and in post-revolutionary Iran, the practice of terror squads has been equally institutionalized as demonstrated by the involvement of religious leaders and politicians. The strong continuity with the chain murders is guaranteed by the identity of the leaders of the gangs. In Iraq, the Shia terror squads are headed by Iraqis who during Saddam Hussein's regime were exiled in Iran, people who have maintained strong ties with the Iranian regime.

"During the Iran-Iraq war, most of them ran prisoner camps in Iran," reveals Ahmed a former member of the Iraqi communist party who resides in London. "They are very familiar with the chain murders' techniques. As the Iranian hit squads of the 90s, they target anybody who opposes the rule of their leaders, including secular Shia. In predominantly Shia districts they control the territory and behave as Mafia gangs. One of my cousins, a secular Sunni, few months ago opened a shop in Baghdad in a Shia section. He was visited by members of the local Shia militia and told to leave. He decided to stay. A few days later a killer shot him in the head."

While the terror model applied by the Iraqi terror gangs has been exported from Iran, the funding is coming from the West. According to several sources who have chosen to remain anonymous, Shia religious leaders and politicians use funds allocated by Coalition forces for the reconstruction of Iraq to bankroll the gangs. "Ironically, the Iranians do not even have to finance the gangs," concludes Ahmed.

As in post-revolutionary Iran, fear is the tool used by the new Iraqi political elites to silence opposition and obtain people's consensus. "Shia terror gangs played a big role in the success of constitution in Amarah," admitted Zahra al-Hamdi, a human rights activist, "for example in the Uzayr district in Amarah 100% of people voted in favour of it."

At the centre of the web of Shia terror gangs in Iraq is Moqtada al Sadr, the young preacher who in March 2003 led the first insurgency against Coalition forces in Baghdad. Sadr controls the Sadr militia and the majority of Shia terror gangs, some of which regularly do battle with Coalition forces.

Behind the images of happy Iraqis at the polls stands a country where democracy has been introduced through war, implemented by force and exercised with violence; an electorate terrorized by ethnic militia and ruthless gangs used as tools by unscrupulous religious and political leaders. The West should reflect on the words of Rory Carroll after his release: "I was told [by my captors that] I would be used as a bargaining chip in exchange for [Shiga cleric Moqtada] al-Sadr people taken in Basra."

His Irish nationality smashed such a plan. The West should also reflect on the speed of his release thanks to the intervention of Ahmad Chalabi, who is a Shia. Carroll's story had a happy ending not because he was Irish, but because he had been snatched by a Shia gang. Last year, when Margaret Hussein, an Irish-born social worker, was kidnapped by a Sunni group linked to Abu Musad al-Zarqawi the world witnessed her execution in horror. No Sunni politician was on hand to secure her release.

(Loretta Napoleoni is a terrorist expert and author of "Terror Inc: Tracing the dollars behind the terror network" and "Insurgent Iraq: al-Zarqawi and the new generation." Mandana Hendessi is an Iranian-born human rights activist. Her articles on women's rights in the new Iraq have been published by "Women in Business International.")

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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