Saturday, March 26, 2005

Basra students strike against Islamists

I had meant to comment on George Packer's February 28 New Yorker article "Letter from Basra: Testing Ground," but didn't get around to it. Packer fine reporting discussed the conflict in the Shiite south between Islamists and secularists struggle over Iraq’s future

“The Iran-backed parties had a strategic vision, which was more or less to take over the south politically, coƶperate with the coalition, enhance their religious position in Najaf, and then be in a position to get national power,” a British official told me. “I think they’ve succeeded without wide support, which is why they’ve overstretched themselves. Not that many people in the south support the parties.”

Since returning from Iran, the religious parties have imposed their strict ideology on Basra, alienating many residents in the process. Upon arrival, armed militias began assassinating Baathists, harassing women who dared to forgo the veil, and forcibly shutting down Basra’s DVD emporiums and Christian-owned liquor shops.
Packer's article is good background to this story from the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions.
...students from Basrah and Shatt Al-Arab universities in Basra City have been on all-out strike for the last three days as a reaction to the attack on 15 March by religious hardliners and Mahdi Army militiamen on students organising a field trip or a picnic at Al-Andalus park in the Al Makhal area of Basra.


The Kuwaiti arabic newspaper Al-Qabas also reported that hooded men assaulted the students with rubber cables and truncheons which resulted in severe injuries to an Armenian Christian girl, Zihoor Ashour who lost one eye because of being beaten on her head very hard with a thick stick of wood. Another student (a boy) who came to her rescue after militiamen had torn off her clothes and were beating her was shot in the head and died subsequently from his injuries.

One Iraqi email correspondent writes: "It was a tragedy. The students of all colleges are in what you can say a revolution because of this. They made many demonstrations against Al-Mahdi army and Al-Sadr demanding to remove their offices from the universities and also a group of the students went to Sayid Al-Sistani to make him talk to Al-Sadr and advise him to be sensible in his actions."

Students say that their belongings, such as mobile phones, cameras, stereo players and loudspeakers, were stolen or smashed to pieces by the militiamen. Girl students not wearing headscarves, most of them Christian, were severely beaten and at least 20 students were kidnapped, taken to Sadr's office in Al-Tuwaisa for 'interrogation' and were only released late at night.

Students also say the police and British soldiers were nearby but did not intervene.

A Sheikh As'ad Al-Basri, one of Sadr's aides in Basrah, stated that the 'believers' of the Mahdi Army did what they did in an act of 'divine intervention' in order to punish the students for their 'immoral and outrageous behaviour' during the 'holy month of Muharram, while the blood of Imam Hussein is yet to dry.' He added that he had sent the 'group of believers' to observe and photograph the students, and on witnessing them playing loud music, 'the kind they play in bars and discos', and openly talking to female students, the 'believers had to straighten things out'.

Thousands of students have been demonstrating in front of the Basrah Governorate building in Asharr for the last three days, shouting 'No to political Islam', 'No to the new tyranny' and 'No to Sadr'. The police (who are loyal to Da'wa in Basrah) reportedly attacked the students in order to disperse the demonstrations.

One iraqi blogger writes: "The Governor of Basrah appeared on Fayhaa TV on Sunday 20 March claiming that problems with Sadr's office had been resolved peacefully. The Governor (who is a member of Da'wa) apparently met with representatives from Sadr's office under the mediation of Shia Islamic parties in Basrah (Da'wa, SCIRI, Fadheela, Thar Allah) and it appears that Sadr's aides agreed to 'punish the guilty parties under a special religious court that would convene for this purpose' and to compensate the students and to return all stolen items to the students. The Governor claimed to have met with the family of another Christian girl who was badly injured, 'generously' offering her free treatment in any country she chooses.

"No mention of the rule of law here. No involvement of Basrah's civil courts at all. The whole incident was mopped up in a tribal-religious meeting, but this time at the Governorate level. The guilty parties were sinisterly assigned the job of punishing themselves. A great lesson in democracy. But then, no one was punished for the executions and torture at religious courts in Najaf the last time anyway.

"What is even worse, the official statement from Sadr's office in Basrah. It asks for the names of the students that were 'allegedly mistreated' in order to compensate them. And listen to this; 'Sadr's office in Basrah offers to provide the universities of Basrah with groups to protect the students in their future field trips.' This following Sheikh As'ad Al-Basri's fiery statements that the students had 'disobeyed his orders, and the stick was for those who disobeyed,' alasa limen asa. He also alleged that the students had shouted 'No to Islam' in their demonstrations this week, insolently adding that the students should be punished for their 'blasphemy'.

"The Governor literally appointed Sadr's office as judge, witness and law-enforcer. We might even say that the Sadrists were in fact rewarded for their vile act...

"The students of Basra have made their demands clear; bringing the Sadrist militiamen to a public trial in the presence of representatives from Basrah's student groups, banning Islamist armed groups from entering campus or running Islamist student groups, and the dissolution of the infamous 'Security Committee' which operates in most of Basra's colleges, and which is reminiscient of the Ba'ath's 'University Security' but taking a Shi'ite Islamic appearance instead of a fascist nationalistic one.

"Student groups from Baghdad, Arbil and Suleimaniya have sent statements of support to Basra. Incidentally, four students were injured in Suleimaniya during demonstrations that have been taking place for the second week in row against the privatisation of educational institutions in the Kurdish region.

"Still no condemnation from the the Hawza, when the attack against the students was done in its name."

The Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI), the other major union federation in Iraq, has also issued an appeal in support of the Basra students. It can be found at the Solidarity with Iraqi Workers website

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