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Militias gone from Basra but fear, apprehension remain
Iraq Basra BAG503 5480936
Iraqi men gather at a food stand in in Basra, 550 kilometers (340 miles) southeast of Baghdad, Iraq, on Sunday, June 8, 2008. Residents are welcoming a measure of stability brought on by a U.S.-Iraqi military crackdown against militia violence but fear the Shiite extremists might try to return and reassert control over the southern city. Underscoring those concerns, U.S. and Iraqi commanders say many militia leaders fled across the border to Iran or to other southern strongholds to escape the operation that began in late March. - photo by Associated Press
    BASRA, Iraq — A clothing store owner defiantly waves a cigarette in the air, saying he was not allowed to smoke when Shiite militias were in control. Then he quietly adds: ‘‘Don’t let them know I said they were bad. They can still kill me.’’
    An Iraqi policeman nervously asks for the deletion of a digital photo taken of him standing next to a propaganda poster of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr discovered during a raid, fearing militiamen might believe he was mocking their leader.
    Basra residents are both hopeful and fearful more than two months after the Iraqi military sent thousands of U.S.-backed reinforcements to pry Iraq’s second-largest city from the grip of Shiite militias and criminal gangs.
    The hope is that a newfound measure of calm will continue. The fear is that the militias are laying low to buy time to regroup and return to fight another day — a concern underscored by U.S. and Iraqi commanders who say militia leaders fled Basra and many went to Iran for military training.
    The city’s streets are crowded with people braving the sand-clogged air and 120-degree heat. Vendors call out for customers from their stalls selling produce and spices. Many women don colorful clothing after months of being forced to wear all-encompassing black Islamic robes and head scarves — though some still wear the more conservative attire.
    ‘‘Before people were scared and often couldn’t go outside their houses. The situation is better now,’’ said Hadiya Sadiq Nissan, shrouded in black and sitting with her neighbor and twin girls on a donkey-drawn cart piled high with recyclable garbage from the desert.
    But posters of al-Sadr decorating light poles and garage walls show his continued influence. And trash-strewn streets often covered in sewage in the impoverished former militia strongholds of Hayaniyah, Qibla and Jamia serve as warnings about the discontent that led to the widespread support for the populist cleric, who is currently in Iran.
    The U.S. military claims Iran is funding and arming Shiite Islamic extremists who have targeted American forces and engaged in extortion and other criminal activities. Iran denies this.
    Washington and Tehran also are now engaged in a diplomatic battle over U.S.-Iraqi negotiations for a long-term security agreement that would extend the American military’s presence in Iraq.
    The stakes are particularly high in Basra, Iraq’s main oil export point, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad. Military officials and residents said they expected those who fled the crackdown to attempt a comeback if the army presence is reduced.
    The British military turned over provincial control of Basra to the Iraqi government in late December despite vicious infighting between Shiite factions and widespread militia infiltration of the local security forces.
    It took an influx of thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops in March to restore a measure of calm.
    U.S.-backed Iraqi soldiers faced fierce resistance at the start of the operation, and clashes spread quickly through the predominantly Shiite southern heartland to Baghdad’s main Sadrist stronghold of Sadr City. But the fighting ebbed in Basra after Iran brokered a cease-fire and Iraqi troops asserted control over much of the strategic city.
    Brig. Gen. Sabah Fadhil Motor, the commander of the U.S.-trained 26th Brigade that is overseeing operations in Hayaniyah and adjacent areas, said Iran did not want to encourage a fight that would draw a heavier U.S. presence just 10 miles from its border.
    ‘‘The Iranians have borders with Basra, not with Sadr City,’’ he said.
    While the military has arrested hundreds of suspected militiamen and seized weapons and ammunition, commanders acknowledge that an undetermined number of senior leaders got away, slipping through border crossing points or making their way through marshes to the north.
    ‘‘We have been pursuing them one place or another even though some have continued to get away from us,’’ said Marine Corps Col. Robert Castellvi, the senior adviser of the U.S. military training team for the Iraqi quick reaction force that was sent from Anbar province to Basra as reinforcements for the operation.
    ‘‘A lot of them we think have gotten into Iran or have continued to move up north, possibly up into Amarah,’’ said Castellvi, 46, of Chicago.
    Amarah, a stronghold of al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia about 100 miles north of Basra, is separated from the Islamic Republic by marshes that have been used by smugglers for centuries and were drained by Saddam Hussein after the Iran-Iraq war.
    ‘‘The heads of these militias left the area. They either went to Iran or other southern theaters,’’ said Brig. Gen. Baha Hussein Abed, the deputy commander of the quick reaction force from the Iraqi army’s 1st Division.
    ‘‘Those who are on the ground now are lower level. Seventy percent of those are under arrest,’’ Abed said during an interview at the Shaiba air field, where his division and their U.S. trainers have set up base on the city’s outskirts.
    Castellvi said more than 500 suspects were arrested but many of the ‘‘kingpins’’ escaped. He said the citizens of Basra are the key to making sure the militias couldn’t return.
    ‘‘We’re not going to be able to control what these militants are doing in Iran or what they’re doing in an area that we don’t control,’’ he said. ‘‘But what we can do over here in Basra is set the conditions so that they’re not welcome to come back and they’re not given safe haven to get back and they’re not given an opportunity to establish a base of operations.’’
    ‘‘I think we’re seeing some very positive signs that people are backing the government, that they’re not going to be as welcoming to these folks,’’ he added.
    Maj. Gen. Mohammed Jawad Huwaidi, the Iraqi army commander who took control of the Basra operation last month, said he was encouraged when a local civilian turned in a militant who returned to Basra from Iran.
    ‘‘People are cooperating,’’ he said. ‘‘In the past they used to be afraid of the militias, now this obstacle has vanished,’’ he said.
    The Basra clothing store owner said his business has been thriving because women feel freer to go shopping without fear of being seized on the street.
    ‘‘The security situation is better thanks to the U.S. and Iraqi military,’’ he said, holding two thumbs up as he stood under a row of tops on display.
    ‘‘I couldn’t even smoke before because that was banned,’’ the man said. Before the crackdown, Shiite fundamentalists — like Sunni zealots of al-Qaida to the north — often targeted behavior they deemed un-Islamic or pro-Western, such as smoking, drinking alcohol and women wearing makeup or showing their hair uncovered.
    But the store owner also asked that his name not be used, fearing that militia elements remain poised to attack him for his defiance.
    Col. Ali Abdullah Najim al-Rabbiyah, the 49-year-old commander of the emergency police battalion that is working closely with the Iraqi army in Basra, said he received intelligence that militia fighters were being trained in camps in Iran.
    ‘‘Some of the gangs who were not arrested went to Iran, and maybe they’ll try to come back,’’ he said. ‘‘Some also went to Amarah. It’s going to be up to us. We can’t allow them to come back.’’

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