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Iraqi protesters rally against occupation amid Basra mourning
Angry demonstrators in Basra claimed yesterday that British forces were responsible for the deaths of 73 people, including 20 children, killed by suicide bombers in the city.
Hundreds of followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical cleric who has led an uprising of impoverished Shia Muslims, said British soldiers carried out Wednesday's atrocities or allowed them to happen.
Abdul Satar al-Bahadli, Sadr's spokesman in the Shia city, brandished pieces of metal which he said were parts of an American missile aimed at one of the police stations targeted by the bombers. "Look it is written here - 'Made in the USA'," he said, as youths clamoured to see. However, the pieces appeared to be engine parts from one of the Chevrolets used in Wednesday's five suicide attacks.
Jawad Kazem, 24, a fitness instructor, said: "The coalition troops did it." He explained that there was widespread talk of a British convoy that passed by the al-Saudia police station minutes before the explosion there.
Nizar Hissan, 47, a tailor in the central market, said: "It is an ugly crime and I blame the British because we were supposed to be under their protection." In a barber shop, Alaa Abed Ali, 20, said the British were only partly responsible.
"I blame the Iraqi people for not being united against those that want to harm them and the police are weak and useless," he said. "As far as the coalition is concerned, I see no role for them because they really do not care about us."
Several policemen took part in the demonstration and said they would side with the populist cleric's gunmen if they clashed with British troops again.
Protesters carried a banner that read: "The Iraqi people say that al-Qa'eda is innocent from the Basra events and the guilty one is the criminal Blair." American, British and Iraqi officials have said that fundamentalists linked to al-Qa'eda or Sunni terrorists hoping to provoke sectarian violence were responsible.
BAGHDAD -- Hundreds of followers of an influential Shi'ite Muslim leader demonstrated yesterday in the southern city of Basra as residents mourned the deaths of 73 people killed in five car bombings a day earlier.
The protesters, who support Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, shouted anti-foreign slogans near the funerals of two children who died in the suicide attacks, and they called for British troops to leave the city, according to television footage of the event. The death toll, which includes 20 children, rose overnight as some of the injured died.
US officials, who accused Sadr's forces of exploiting public grief for political purposes, contrasted the angry demonstration with the circumspect retreat of British troops from the scene.
Followers of the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have blamed British forces for the coordinated series of car bombs which killed 73 people in the southern Iraqi city of Basra yesterday.
Several Iraqi policemen in uniform have joined the followers in protests.
The coalition say the attacks bore all the hallmarks of Al Qaeda, but Sadr's spokesman in Basra, Sheikh al-Bahadli, told the 300 supporters gathered in front of his office that there was evidence that British occupation forces were involved.
The targets of the attacks were Iraqi police stations and a uniformed policeman who joined the protest said "the British were the ones who attacked us".
"Now we are with our religious leaders," the policeman said.
Another policeman said many of his fellow officers were ready to fight alongside Sadr's Mehdi army.
April 23, 12:02 pm EST. Amman, Jordan -- Thinking about the killings in Basra and az-Zubayr, where the death toll has either risen to 74 or lowered to 50 (and includes 20 children). Some followers of Moqtada al-Sadr in Basra demonstrated against them and a representative of his blamed the attacks on the British. This, by the way, is not surprising -- the story is that it was a similar claim (except about Americans instead of British) that prompted the closing of al-Hawza, al-Sadr's newspaper. And, indeed, it's a very common belief in Iraq that these large terrorist attacks are done by the American forces. I see no reason to believe it myself, but it does show the esteem in which the American forces are held.
The Guardian has a story claiming that, on the basis of a suspect apprehended while running away from one of the bombing sites in az-Zubayr, that these attacks were not the work of foreign terrorists (al-Qaeda, Zarqawi, "Zarqawi," etc. -- it still amazes me that Zarqawi's having a leg amputated in Baghdad was one of the smoking guns that required a U.S. war on Iraq, but now they're not sure whether he has one or two legs -- but I digress), but rather of "local Iraqis incensed by the deaths of hundreds of fellow Sunnis killed in Falluja by US troops."
Well, none of us are going to know the truth for some time, but this really stinks of black propaganda being put out by the "coalition." First of all, ever since this latest phase started, the theme song for every Iraqi has been Sunni-Shi'a unity. Even if you took an extremely cynical view and said it was all rhetorical, why upset it right now when both groups have the same enemy? Personally, I think it's a little more than rhetorical -- it hasn't erased the deep problems between communities, but the fact that the poor of the Shi'a slums gave from their very meager resources to send aid to Fallujah certainly has an effect on people and does help to draw them together.
In fact, the only dissenting note in recent weeks was a purported communication from Zarqawi on April 6 in which he explicitly denounced the Shi'i.
Second, starting in the fall, there were many attacks targeting Iraqi police as "collaborators" with the occupying forces. There were even attacks on cleaning women and laundry women as "collaborators." It's almost unimaginable to me, by the way, that the latter were done by any sort of normal indigenous Iraqi resistance faction -- in the macho culture of the country, such an attack would be seen as entirely cowardly and absurdly stupid. But anyway, I talked with Shi'a sympathizers of Moqtada's Jaish-il-Mehdi (Mehdi Army) in Shuala, Thawra, Kadhimiyah, and other places, and also with sympathizers of the Falluja mujaheddin. None of them had anything particularly bad to say about the Iraqi police. Some middle class people will tell you the IP are a bunch of thieves, but in the context of the occupation, none of these militants I spoke with saw them as a target -- especially right now.
The response was always the same -- "They are Iraqis." They weren't a problem -- the Americans, who shoot indiscriminately, kill civilians, put Fallujah under siege, were the problem. Of course, I can't speak for all the mujaheddin factions in Fallujah or the Sunni in az-Zubayr, but it seems to me very unlikely that anyone who wanted to take revenge for Fallujah would see any Iraqi Arabs as the appropriate target. This is especially the case when, according to Major General Martin Dempsey, 10% of Iraqi security forces have gone over to the "enemy" (also known as the Iraqi people) and 40% have refused to show up for work.
So, this is all speculation, but if I had to guess I'd say it's "Zarqawi" (by which I mean the same group that has done so many other indiscriminate bombing attacks) but that someone in the "coalition" decided it wouldn't hurt to try to frame someone else and break down the very fragile feeling of unity that has been emerging.