- Gangs of armed militants, operating with almost complete
impunity, are terrorizing the streets of Iraq's second-largest city, assaulting
and killing alcohol and video merchants in a campaign to impose their rules
on what was once the most liberal city in the country.
- British occupying troops have been powerless to prevent
the wave of targeted attacks in Basra, and Iraq's new civilian police are
unable or unwilling to arrest the gunmen, believed to be members of Islamic
- In the latest attack, a 43-year-old woman was killed
Monday night by four men who shot her six times with pistols at the entrance
to her video shop in one of Basra's busiest shopping districts.
- On the same night, gunmen fired shots at Basra's last
remaining alcohol vendors, who have already been forced to close their
shops and sell their wares from hideouts on the street.
- Last week, at least five people were shot dead by masked
men who attacked a group of liquor vendors with pistols and Kalashnikov
rifles. Some of the gunmen were riding in Iraqi police vehicles, witnesses
- In the past few months, at least nine vendors have been
killed with grenades or machine guns and dozens of shops have been firebombed
or hit with grenades. Several video dealers have been kidnapped and assaulted
by extremist groups, according to vendors. And many have received warnings
or "inspections" from radical religious groups who order them
not to sell anything "pornographic."
- Musicians have also been attacked. "They are imposing
their views with force," said a Basra shop owner who witnessed Monday
night's attack and took the woman's body to hospital.
- "It is happening step-by-step: first alcohol, then
videos and music." Perhaps most disturbing is the absence of any serious
investigation by the Iraqi police, who are supposed to be replacing the
U.S.-led military coalition as the main security force in Iraq.
- An hour after Monday's attack, there was still a pool
of blood in front of the video shop but the Iraqi police had already left
the site after asking only a few questions.
- Several witnesses said the police spent just 10 minutes
at the scene, without taking any statements from them. "That's the
way it works with the Iraqi police," said the shop owner. "Anyone
who kills someone will get away with it."
- Iraqi police say they lack the resources to solve the
killings of alcohol and video vendors. They don't have fingerprinting or
forensic equipment, and they don't have enough vehicles or radios to get
to crime scenes quickly, they say. "We don't even have a homicide
department," said Major Mohammed Al-Lami, chief of the police station
that investigated Monday night's murder.
- Captain Geraint Davis, a British military officer in
Basra, said the coalition is trying to control the religious militias.
In an incident in December, the troops rescued seven people who had been
kidnapped by an Islamic group that was "educating" them about
Islamic rules, he said.
- Major Tim Smith, a spokesman for coalition forces in
Basra, said the coalition is helping Iraqi police to collect evidence to
solve the killings. "There is a problem and we have to deal with it,"
he said. "We have to redouble our efforts."
- With its international port and its close connections
to the outside world, Basra has always been the most liberal and secular
of Iraq's cities. Several hundred merchants, mostly Christians, traditionally
sold alcohol in the city. But all that has changed drastically since last
year's U.S.-led invasion.
- Islamic groups, kept under a tight leash during the Saddam
Hussein regime, now operate freely in Basra with their own militias. Officially
the militias cannot carry weapons, but it is widely acknowledged that most
- Well organized and well financed, the militant groups
are determined to impose strict religious rules on the city. Outside a
Catholic church in Basra at Sunday services, former alcohol merchant Bassam
Toma described how he was attacked by masked men with hand grenades and
rocket-propelled grenades last summer.
- He still has shrapnel in his eye and leg and he has lost
vision in one eye. Sixteen people were injured in the attack, he said.
The extremist groups are winning the war, Mr. Toma said.
- "They have 99-per-cent control now. Nobody is resisting
them. They do whatever they want to do. They are strong, they have new
cars, rocket-propelled grenades. They're even working with the police."
Only a handful of people still sell alcohol.
- To dodge the gunmen, they have switched to bicycles,
and keep their wares in secret hideouts. "It's easier to escape on
bikes," said one young vendor. "We could get a bullet in the
head any time. But what can I do? There is no other work. Should I steal?"
- The vendor narrowly escaped death in last week's shooting
that left five dead. He said he hid behind a woman, hoping the gunmen would
not shoot her, but they did.
- At an outdoor market in Basra, video-disc vendors say
Islamic militants often visit their stalls, posing as customers and asking
if they have pornographic videos. Several vendors who sold pornography
were kidnapped and severely beaten by the radicals, they said, and some
were so frightened that they quit the video business.
- Another video merchant, 24-year-old Rafeeq Yaqoub, is
thinking about quitting the business because of declining sales. "Some
people might think you are selling pornography and attack you," he
said. "It was better under Saddam Hussein. Nowadays you can expect
anyone to come in and kill you."
- © 2004 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights