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Baluch Celebrate Rebel's Arrest

Sunni militant leader said to lack popular support because of insecurity caused by attacks in Iran’s southeast.
By Amineh Soghdi

The arrest of Iranian Sunni Islamic militant Abdolmalek Rigi means the end of his Jundullah (Army of God) group, some analysts believe, and has been widely welcomed in the southeastern Sistan-Baluchestan province where it operates.

Rigi was captured after a Kyrgyz passenger plane in which he was travelling was forced to land in Iran on February 23 by Iranian fighters.

Iranian intelligence minister Heydar Moslehi was quoted as saying that Rigi had ties to a number of intelligence services including the United States Central Intelligence Agency. He said Rigi carried a US-issued Afghan passport and visited a US base in Afghanistan hours before being captured.

US officials were quoted as saying the charges were bogus.

Contrary to the reports in Arab and western media, Jundullah – a small cell that claimed to be defending the rights of the country’s ethnic Baluch Sunni Muslim minority – never had much popular support.

Jundullah declared its existence in the winter of 2005 by taking nine Iranian border guards hostage. Suicide bombings and the decapitation of hostages had convinced many analysts that the group had ties with al-Qaeda, which like Jundullah also has hideouts in Pakistan. However, no concrete evidence pointing to such a link has been made public.

Iran says Jundullah fighters have killed at least 150 civilians and police officers over the past four years, although local sources put the death toll at 400 and say many of the victims were Baluch.

On October 18, 2009, a Jundullah suicide bombing in the city of Sarbaz, where a Shia-Sunni solidarity conference was in progress, claimed the lives of 41 Iranians, among them veteran Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, IRGC, Commander Nour-Ali Shoushtari and ten Baluch elders. Passersby and residents of the area - including a two-year-old child - were also killed.

Aside from highway robbery and bombings in a number of cities, Rigi was known for taking military officers and wealthy people hostage. Jundullah demanded a ransom for the release of its civilian hostages and the freedom of imprisoned smugglers in exchange for its military hostages. Retired colonel Hamid Kaveh was one of the hostages executed by Jundullah, and several businessmen were released after a hefty ransom was paid.

In an interview with an anti-Iran television channel known as Channel 1 in July 2007, Rigi revealed having limited ties with the Iranian rebel Mujahedin Khalq Organisation, MKO, which has been blacklisted by the US.

Aged about 30, Rigi comes from a small and obscure family that lacks influence and power in the traditional, class-based Baluch society. Despite being a member of the large, mainly peaceful, Rigi tribe, which has cooperated with the government especially in Mirjaveh on the border with Pakistan, he never garnered much support.

Contrary to reports that say Rigi did not have a school education, he attended Razi high school in the Sistan-Baluchestan provincial capital of Zahedan.

Different sources say he was an unruly student who was all too happy to use his switchblade knife. He was ultimately arrested and expelled from school for this reason. It has been reported that Rigi attended a radical Wahhabi school in Pakistan for a period and was expelled for unknown reasons.

Credible sources say Rigi was addicted to hashish in his youth and sold pirated music CDs and alcohol for a living. His political and religious views were also in conflict with the official Sunni view held in Baluchestan. Molavi Abdolhamid, the founder of the Macci religious school in Zahedan, which is the most important Sunni religious school in Iran, described the actions of Jundullah as diabolical, saying, “They are not the party of God; they are the party of the Satan.”

Rigi taped his group’s attacks - the films are available on the internet and can be bought on discs in Sistan-Baluchestan markets. Based on the information provided by Rigi himself on these discs, the number of his fighters does not exceed 50.

Jundullah’s activities brought difficulties for the local people, when, in response to its attacks, the government partly closed the border with Pakistan to stop the group from easily roaming the area.

The border restrictions stopped trade, inflicting damage and financial loss on the Baluch people who make up the majority of the population in the area and who include many traders.

Sistan-Baluchestan province is one of the most impoverished regions of Iran. Despite official statistics putting the unemployment rate in the province at 14 per cent, Zahedan representative Hossein-Ali Shahriyari said recently in the Majlis (parliament) that the real figure is 35 per cent.

Jundullah’s hostage-taking brought investments to a standstill and ultimately led to many businessmen, who feared they could be targeted, taking their assets with them to other parts of Iran.

The political and economic insecurity caused by Jundullah operations was one reason why Rigi failed to find popular support with the people he claimed to be defending. His attempt to exploit religious differences between the Shia majority and the Sunni minority also fell on stony ground, possibly because of their shared need to combat poor standards of living.

A Baluch analyst said, “People don’t support the current government but insecurity draws them to it.”

When news of Rigi’s arrest broke, people of the region celebrated, dancing in the street to the beat of drums. People distributed sweets in the city of Zahedan and the families of his victims wept with joy.

One Baluch elder in Chabahar said, “He was a good-for-nothing bandit whose actions only inflicted harm on the Baluch.” The sister of one of the border guards killed by Jundullah said, “If I see Rigi I will spit in his face.”

Following Rigi’s arrest, Molavi Abdolhamid, who has been a harsh critic of the Iranian government in the past, reiterated that none of the people of Sistan-Baluchestan province are happy about banditry, murder and insecurity. “The atrocities committed by Rigi have upset and disgusted everyone [in Sistan-Baluchestan],” he said.

Some analysts believe Rigi’s arrest will mean the end of Jundullah, even though it promptly announced a new leader named Mohammad Zaher Baluch. Rigi is expected to give the authorities information that will make it possible to identify his fighters who are thought to cross into Iran from hideouts in Pakistan to visit their families.

The Sistan-Baluchestan prosecutor announced that Jundullah members who turn themselves in would be granted clemency. Two days after Rigi’s arrest, Sistan-Baluchestan governor Ali-Mohammad Azad announced that the Mirjaveh border crossing to Iran, which is an important trade route, would be re-opened, apparently recognising a lowered threat.

The province was troublesome in the 1990s when drug traffickers and armed bandits had thrown the region into chaos. The government decided to grant immunity to the commanders and chiefs of Baluch tribes, who had fled to neighbouring countries including Pakistan following the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and give them the responsibility for maintaining the security of the region after their return. This was effective in reducing tensions in this border province.

The government at the time sped up development projects, which led to economic growth and a gradual reduction in unemployment. Border markets were established and the Chabahar free trade zone on the coast began in 1995. There was also action to promote industry, fisheries and mining.

The current administration of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been less sympathetic, however, and has appointed radical Shia officials from outside to important positions, which has fuelled Shia-Sunni tension.

The IRGC announced last summer that it intends to arm Baluch tribes and leave the security of the region in their hands. The IRGC has also unveiled fresh plans for the economic development of the region and some analysts believe it is frustrated at the inaction of the government.

One Iranian affairs analyst said, “The government should direct its efforts towards educating the people while developing the economy of the region.” Otherwise, he said, individuals like Rigi will still be able to cause disruption with the help of foreign elements.

Amineh Soghdi is an Iranian journalist based in the city of Kerman.

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