Karbala Police in Crossfire

City force caught between Coalition and followers of Muqtada al-Sadr.

Karbala Police in Crossfire

City force caught between Coalition and followers of Muqtada al-Sadr.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

The holy city of Karbala is beset by opposing armed forces, and the city's police are caught in the middle.

US and Polish troops and soldiers of the New Iraqi Army have cut the roads outside the city, while inside militias loyal to a variety of Shia religious factions hold sway.

People loyal to Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani and the Badr Brigades of the Supreme Council cluster at intersections alongside fighters from Muqtada al-Sadr's Army of the Mahdi, whose clash with the Coalition precipitated this crisis.

Earlier, the forces of the Mahdi Army stormed the governorate building and police stations. In the governorate building, the police fled, although Polish forces repulsed the Sadrists.

Ali Hashem, a 24-year-old police auxiliary stationed at the governorate, says that he chose not to fight back.

"Members of the Mahdi Army came to the station last night to take control. They fired in the air but we did not respond. I was not the only one to withdraw from the site, leaving the Polish forces to exchange fire."

One young police officer standing outside the governorate building with a group of his fellows, his chest draped with a belt of machinegun bullets, says that he will not obey orders to disarm and arrest anyone carrying an unlicensed weapon.

"We are with the marjaeya, the supreme Shia clerics, and we will not hurt them or endanger their militias, even though we received orders to confiscate weapons and receive carriers," Hashem said.

Patrolman Mohammed Saad Jawad, 28, also says he would not obey orders to disarm, or otherwise resist the militias.

"I will not fire against my brother Muslims and the sons of my town, because they have the legitimate right to reject the occupation. Even if they start shooting, I will retreat from confrontation and open the field to them," he said.

In the centre of the town, two dozen men of the Mahdi Army's Ali al-Akbar squadron, carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, stop to chat with officers in a passing police car.

"There is understanding between the Mahdi Army and the policemen, and no fighting or enmity between them," said squadron leader Sheikh Ali Hassan.

But the feelings are not so amicable at the al-Mualamin police station, where the walls are holed by rocket-propelled grenades and shattered glass covers the floor.

Here, police say they withdrew and let the Mahdi Army loot the armoury after a 30-minute battle which left three officers wounded.

Other police posts across town tell the same story.

In the offices of the anti-drug squad, auxiliary Haidar Hadi says he was beaten with rifle butts after giving up.

The director of al-Mualamin, who identifies himself only as "Captain Mohammed", says that the attackers must be punished.

"If orders come from superiors to confront the Mahdi Army, I will move immediately," he said.

Dhiya Rasan is an IWPR trainee.

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