The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Marines oust self-styled Kut governor

Kut, April 27: Said Abbas sat in the governor’s chair, signed papers as the governor, gave speeches as the governor, even had a governor’s assistant who wore a smart yellow jacket with a black tie. But the Marines had another title for him: squatter.

In post-war Iraq, every ethnic group, religious group and social group is trying to stake its claim. Abbas claimed this Tigris River city of 300,000, making it impossible for the Marines to consolidate power and get Kut running again. So on Friday, Abbas was given an ultimatum: Face arrest or leave. Not long before the Marines stormed City Hall, Abbas slipped out the back door.

For more than two weeks, this self-declared governor occupied the ornate office of the former governor. Dressed in the robes of a Shia cleric (though he never received formal religious education), he was surrounded by the accoutrements of power: shimmering crystal chandelier, gaudy white furniture and a room full of admirers willing to jump at his command.

He said he was elected, or selected, by his neighbours in the Shia community because he is a humanitarian. “I am a popular man,” he said with a hint of a smile and not a touch of humility, about an hour before he made his escape. “I have a popular base. The good and patriotic people are in need of an influential person, especially now, so I came with them to this place.”

The Marines said he was a “thug” trying to consolidate power and enrich his friends. They said he took control of the government-owned food warehouses, and tried to sell the food. They said he extorted money from local business in what amounted to a protection racket, and his supporters threatened to have his enemies killed.

Whatever the truth about the cleric, affiliated with the Iran-based Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, he was undeniably an embarrassment to the Americans, a symbol of their failure to fill a power vacuum that rose in Iraq after Saddam Hussein. He also embodied a serious miscalculation by Washington, which overlooked the probability that Shia leaders would move quickly to seize power and neglected to counter the influence of Iran.

Abbas soaked it up, until the letter came. The Marines decided they had had enough. Shortly before 6 pm Friday, he decided not to fight for City Hall and left. Not long after, the Marines arrived in force, with Humvees surrounding the place, young men armed with M-16s and steely stares taking up positions as crowds of men, some astonished, some angry, others just curious, poured into the streets.

“Everyone should go home,” the Marines announced in booming Arabic from speakers mounted atop their vehicles. “It is not a movie. A single shot and it will be a real battle here.”

Suddenly, Abbas was gone and the US demonstrated once again that authority can come at the end of a barrel.

The situation may work out yet in Kut. But the Marines will have to demonstrate that they can deliver.

Suddenly, Abbas was gone and the US demonstrated once again that authority can come at the end of a barrel.

But its challenges are far from over, in Kut or anywhere else in Iraq. How long can military might ensure authority when what people want is self-determination — and electricity'

“This is an American-British occupation, which is humiliating,” Said Abu al Hail, 40, said as news of Abbas’ departure spread. “They said they are going to liberate the people and let them govern themselves. When'”

It may well be that once America installs a civil administration in this country, all of the jockeying for power will be forgotten. But for now, there is a sense among the people that Iraq is tacking into the wind without anyone at the helm.

“I want security,” Samer Kassim, 40, wailed as he stood outside City Hall with the thousands of others who had gathered to see what happened. “We don’t care if it is Abbas or America. We want security.”

The people of Kut were lucky. Whether it was because of Abbas and his followers, or a sense of community, the town wasn’t trashed when the regime fell. The government offices were not looted, shops remained open for business, and the rhythm of life carried on with some degree of normality.

The US has warned Iran not to interfere with its neighbour, and Abbas is a symbol of that concern. The Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq has been based in Tehran for many years and has in recent days sent its members and its supporters flooding into southern Iraq.

These are Iraqi people, to be sure, but they carry with them a vision that has at least in part been shaped by many years in Iran. Abbas understands the sensitivity to Iran, the genuine distrust between the Arabs of Iraq and the Persians of Iran, and so he is eager to minimise the link, even while serving Iranian bottled water in his office.

On Friday, Abbas sat in an inner sanctum of City Hall, on the floor, eating a lunch of rice, stewed tomatoes and a few slices of zucchini. He acted as though he was still the boss, with every intention of staying put.

“Are you working for the military'” Abbas snapped at an American photographer.

“Look at me, am I aggressive' Am I a demon'” He took out a copy of the letter he had received from the Marines. It listed 10 conditions to avoid arrest, and one effectively sent him into exile. He didn’t want to leave the town of his birth and so, apparently, cut a deal with the Marines. He said he wasn’t about to leave, but then he did.

The Marines were thrilled. “We will return power to the people, through the symbols they are accustomed to,” said Lt. Col. Rick Grabowsky, Marine detachment commander for Civil Affairs. “The Marines are anxious to go home.”

The initial test was nearly a disaster. As soon as the 16-day Abbas era ended and there appeared to be a power vacuum, groups of residents began to loot government offices. That hadn’t happened when Abbas was in power and the Marines just stood by appearing unconcerned.

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