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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Lord of the Marshes Takes a Mediating Role in Iraq

By Lydia Khalil

The "Lord of the Marshes" is a name that evokes a mythic image of one of Iraq's most illustrious resistance fighters. Abd Karim al-Mahmud Muhamedawi, also known as Abu Hatem, is a legendary figure inside Iraq but is little known to the outside world. A famed guerrilla leader from the southern marshlands, he is the only indigenous resistance fighter, aside from the Kurds, who successfully fought against Saddam's forces. He formed and led Hezbollah (unrelated to Lebanon's Hezbollah), a militia comprised of Shiite tribal members from the Iraqi marshlands. A key figure during the political transition after the fall of Saddam, he lent credibility to the oft criticized government of mostly exile leaders. Recently, Abu Hatem is focusing on local politics in southern Iraq, playing a mediating role between various Shiite factions.

Abu Hatem was born in 1958 in Amarrah into the Albu Mohamed tribe prominent in the marshlands. He served in the Iraqi army as a non-commissioned officer, and although he was a well respected leader in the military, was later jailed in 1980 by the regime probably for that very reason. He spent seven years in the Abu Ghraib prison; after his release, he initiated resistance activities, forming Hezbollah, a guerrilla group mostly composed of his fellow tribal members in the marshlands. With anywhere from 1,000 to 8,000 mobilized fighters at any given time, Hezbollah fought a "War of the Fleas" against Saddam's forces, using the marsh reeds as cover and shelter. Hezbollah forces were armed with mortars, rocket propelled grenades and machine guns. They participated in arms smuggling, but they were usually low on ammunition, had almost no money and lived off of the marshlands. Hezbollah forces were continually on the move, irritating and foiling the Iraqi army anytime they entered into the marshlands (Middle East Times, June 30, 2003). In 1997, Abu Hatem was nearly killed by Iraqi forces when he was ambushed while traveling by car to Maimuna in southern Iraq. Frustrated by their inability to capture Abu Hatem and neutralize Hezbollah, Saddam ordered the marshes be drained, destroying a culture and a way of life in the process. Although Hezbollah no longer had the marshes as natural cover, they continued their campaign. Instead of hiding out in the marsh reeds, they dug bunkers in the dried up water courses.

Abu Hatem's "Party of God" militia is often mistakenly referred to as a branch of the better known Lebanese organization sponsored by Iran. The two organizations, however, are wholly unrelated and Iraqi Hezbollah was never sponsored by Iran or any other country. It is very likely, however, that it received funding from U.S. and British intelligence agencies. Given Abu Hatem's distaste for foreign interference and special distrust of Iran and its other Iraqi sponsors, Iraqi Hezbollah and Abu Hatem are against Iran's interference in Iraqi affairs. His people had always protected Shalamja, a border area under his control, against infiltration by Iran (author interview with an advisor to Abu Hatem, August 2006).

During the 2003 Gulf War, Amarrah, Abu Hatem's hometown, was the only city to liberate itself before coalition forces entered the area. Abu Hatem, his tribal followers and Hezbollah continue to exercise considerable influence in Amarrah. Abu Hatem is largely responsible for keeping the peace in this southern corner of Iraq. His followers are mainly from the marsh areas, although he has considerable following in Nasiriyah and Basra. He commands respect among many Iraqi groups. He once temporarily resigned his post in the interim government to protest against the Fallujah siege and he was courted by Ahmed Chalabi to lend credibility to his political coalition. Abu Hatem has also played a leading role in quelling recent intra-Shiite fighting in Basra.

Abu Hatem's Hezbollah militia is unlike other Shiite militias in Iraq in that Abu Hatem no longer projects himself as a militia leader. When asked if he had an army of 8,000 men, he answered, "I have just this book and pen," pointing to the table in front of him. His militia is no longer a standing force, but they, and members of the Albu Mohamed tribe, can be mobilized by him at a moments notice. He has tried to integrate his forces into the security services and cooperated with British forces in the area, despite occasional incidents. His followers are largely responsible for securing the Maysan Province (Terrence Kelly, August 2005). Hezbollah is not as strong in number as SCIRI's Badr Corps or Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, nor are they as active. Abu Hatem, however, has served as a conduit to al-Sadr before he was active in politics and has influence over many of Moqtada al-Sadr's followers and militia members in Sadr City. Many of the Albu Mohamed tribal members who left the marshes after they were drained relocated to Sadr City and came to also support al-Sadr.

Although Abu Hatem inspires respect among most, he is not free from controversy. His standing as the region's strongman has brought accusations of gangsterism by some in the area. There was a warrant issued for his arrest in 2004 for allegedly ordering the shooting of Majar al-Kabir's police chief after he criticized Abu Hatem. No action was taken on the arrest warrant, and many believe this was because police officers and civil authorities in the area are either Hezbollah members or receive money and favors from Abu Hatem (Middle East Times, June 30, 2003). Abu Hatem also has considerable influence over Iraq's new minister of interior, Jawad Bolani. Bolani once served as Abu Hatem's deputy and holds Abu Hatem in high esteem. He often consults Abu Hatem regarding political and security matters and credits Abu Hatem with securing him the position. Abu Hatem's relationship with Bolani, however, only gives him sway over the minister, not the ministry. Bolani has had trouble reining in the unwieldy Interior Ministry which is compromised of mostly SCIRI followers (author interview with an advisor to Abu Hatem, August 2006). SCIRI, along with the Da'wa party, are Abu Hatem's and Hezbollah's main political rivals. He criticizes their uncontrolled militias that are fomenting civil strife and believes that they are doing Iran's bidding in Iraq. He is also critical of SCIRI's plans for a nine province southern region, knowing that his influence would be overtaken by the more powerful Shiite forces if that was to occur (al-Hayat, June 2, 2005).

While he has a good working relationship with British troops in his area and cooperated with the coalition's political plan, he has advocated an early end to the occupation and wants more security responsibilities placed into the hands of Iraqis. He has also resisted disarmament by coalition forces. In late 2003, there were clashes between residents of Majar al-Kabir and British troops, and six soldiers were killed. The incident occurred because the British soldiers insisted on trying to disarm the population; the tribesmen saw this as a dishonor to render them defenseless even after they had initially cooperated with British troops. Afterwards, Abu Hatem played a key role in dispersing tensions following the clash (Middle East Times, June 30, 2003).

Abu Hatem is no longer a member of parliament since Chalabi's coalition, of which he was a member, did not receive enough votes for a parliamentary representation. He is focusing on local politics, heading up the Council of Notables, a senate-like civic council made up of representatives from Maysan, Nasiriyah and Basra. Now that Abu Hatem is not working on the national level, he is concentrating more on local issues. As intra-Shiite and sectarian violence continues inside Iraq, Abu Hatem will be able to play more of a mediating role in the southern region and serve as a foil against certain Shiite political militias, such as the Badr Corps and the Mahdi Army, that have been responsible for the recent violence.

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