Anti-American cleric part of a difficult mix facing troops in one Iraqi city
April 15, 2003
KUT, Iraq — When U.S. troops entered this important Iraqi city on the Tigris, they discovered that the locals already had put up banners to greet them in Arabic and broken English: “We want keep the security” and “We are people not army.”
The welcome wasn’t what it seemed, however. The troops soon learned that the Shiite cleric behind the slogans — who declared himself in power here and had occupied city hall with armed bodyguards — was backed by Iran and preaching anti-American positions.
U.S. troops are now trying to sort out a political mess in this key central crossroads city, just one of many post-Saddam power struggles across the country.
As many as 300 Iranians in Iraq protested Monday at Kut city hall against the U.S.-led takeover, said U.S. Marine Capt. Peter Tabash, a Washington-based civil affairs officer working in Kut, 100 miles southeast of Baghdad near the Iranian border.
Tabash said demonstrators spat on U.S. troops and chanted “No Chalabi!” — referring to Ahmed Chalabi, the leader of the Pentagon-backed Iraqi National Congress opposition group.
But he said that Said Abbas, a Shiite sheik who seized city hall with as many as 30 lightly armed bodyguards a week ago after local Baath Party leaders fled, paid the Iranians to protest.
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U.S. troops who entered the city a few days ago encountered cheering crowds and no resistance, and top Marine officers met with Abbas before realizing what he really represented.
Marines say they aren’t sure what Abbas was doing before the government fell, and claim he has the support of only 10 percent of the local population, with the rest backing Chalabi. When top Marine officers from Task Force Tarawa met Abbas, he told them, “We’re going to take care of the Baathists.”
But Tabash said he responded: “That’s not your job. We’ll take care of that if you didn’t do it in the last 30, 35 years.”
“Nobody will be in charge while we’re here,” Tabash said.
Marines working with Special Forces soldiers disarmed Abbas’ men at city hall, hauling away their Kalashnikov rifles and pistols. Now they’re planning to kick them out altogether.
“We’re going to take other measures and actions to remove him from power,” Tabash said, adding U.S. troops would “try not to use force.”
Despite the struggle at the top, Kut has been relatively calm compared with the pandemonium that has greeted the regime’s collapse in other southern cities.
So far, there has been relatively little looting here. Hospitals are still working, and trash is being collected — even though the trash collectors aren’t getting paid.
Down the street from the hotel that Marines are using as a makeshift base, the blackened facade of the Fedayeen Saddam paramilitary building was still smoldering. Among mortars and artillery shells lay dozens of the Fedayeen’s black Darth Vader-like helmets, inscribed on the side with “Allah, motherland, leader” — Saddam’s slogan for the country. Empty nerve gas antidote cases littered the dirt.
Nearby, faded graffiti on a white wall read: “Down Down U.S.A.”
In the coming days, the Marines plan to call a meeting of town leaders to decide who will work with the U.S. military to run the city.
The debate will be contentious. On a street corner in Kut, poet Muhammed Raheem, who said he supports Chalabi, was discussing with Marine Capt. Steve Coast, a civil affairs officer, whether he had to turn in his guns.
“A lot of the Iraqis disagree among themselves,” Raheem said, explaining why he wanted to hold on to his weapons. “There’s basically a civil war.”
But Kamil Khuder, another resident, told Raheem he disagreed: “No, we don’t need Chalabi.”
He then told Coast: “If you want our help, you need to do two things. You’ve got to give us electricity and take care of our sick.”