Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Samawah at Ease with Troops

Unlike other parts of the country, this southern Iraqi city is supportive of Coalition soldiers in its midst.
By Naser Kadhem

Three children toss paper airplanes at a military vehicle guarding the entrance of the main bridge over the Euphrates in Samawah, as the Dutch troops manning it smile at passing civilians.

While gunfire or rocket-propelled grenades often greet Coalition troops in neighbouring provinces, Dutch and Japanese soldiers are welcomed with waves and two-fingered "v for victory" signs, in this dusty provincial capital in the far south of Iraq.

"Our city is considered a city of peace. From the fall of the old regime until now, we have not heard any explosions," said tribal elder Falyih al-Yasiri, 45.

"We do not care, even if they call us the 'white chicken'," he said, referring to an insult bestowed on Samawah by residents of other cities in the south, where the Mahdi Army loyal to preacher Muqtad al-Sadr has engaged in battles with American, Spanish, Italian, Ukrainian and other foreign troops.

"Whatever the Mahdi Army and others said about us, we will remain peaceful in our dealings with the Japanese and Dutch forces whatever happens," Yasiri said.

Occasional mortar attacks and exchanges of fire have been reported near the Dutch and Japanese bases deployed here. But the atmosphere inside Samawah is a world apart from that in many neighbouring governorates.

Iraqis walk up and exchange greetings with the Dutch, while elsewhere in the south other Coalition troops keep citizens at arm’s length.

The city’s residents attribute the calm to two factors - a society dominated even more so than the rest of the south by conservative Shia tribes; and a post-war economic boom fuelled, ironically, by the smuggling of weapons to nearby Saudi Arabia.

Few here were attracted to the Sadrist movement or to other anti-Coalition insurgent groups, residents say. So foreign forces never had to adopt the tough security measures that might have alienated locals.

The Sadrist office downtown is closed - a precautionary measure, residents say, requested by tribal leaders just after the war.

"Relations between Sadr followers and the citizens of the governorate are very good," said 23-year-old cigarette vendor and Sadrist Sami Mohammed. "We are different from other Sadr followers inside Iraq."

Samawis even have formed committees to look out for anyone who would harm Coalition members in their midst, residents say.

"We keep awake day and night to protect the foreigners in the city," said Karim Muhammad, 45, the owner of an antiques shop. "We formed these groups to protect the foreigners who came to rebuild Iraq, whatever their nationality may be."

Samawah's economy traditionally has depended on farming, shepherding and smuggling - particularly of weapons - to neighbouring Saudi Arabia. But the economy also has been boosted since the war by an influx of former Iraqi political refugees from Iran, the Gulf and the West.

The city is not totally isolated from post-war Iraq's perennial shortages, with local drivers complaining about the lack of petrol, which they blame on poor security on the roads from Nasiriya and Basra.

While the occupation authorities tend to be blamed for the problem elsewhere in Iraq, here many Samawis are confident that the local soldiery will come up with a solution.

"The Japanese and Dutch forces will provide us with gas. I am sure of that," said 23-year-old taxi driver Muhammad Salman.

Though they’re staying out of the current insurrection, Samawis take pride in their past revolutionary role.

"We are the sons of the revolution of 1920, which was launched by the people of [the outlying town of] Rumeitha against the British forces," said Yasiri.

"This proves that we are revolutionaries and patriots, not the ‘white chicken’ as some might imagine.”

Naser Kadhem and Hussein Ali are IWPR trainees.

More IWPR's Global Voices