Global Policy Forum

Southern Iraqis Likely to Lose Out


By Muhammad Athar Lila

Toronto Star
June 12, 2001

Last month, more than 4 million Muslims converged in the southern Iraqi town of Karbala to commemorate the life of al-Husayn, a man of principle, a man known and respected by more than 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide.

What was remarkable about the event was not the attendance, or that it occurred despite the U.N. sanctions. What was most remarkable - and sad - is that it came and went without so much as a whisper in the Western media. Perhaps it was because objective news reports aren't readily available from Iraq. Perhaps the media gurus don't think events in southern Iraq are newsworthy. Or perhaps, as many Muslims believe, the Western media have an anti-Islam bias.

Many Western writers and academics talk about the "devastating" effect of the sanctions, but few have actually been to Iraq to see the conditions for themselves.

Baghdad does not look like a city that has been living through a decade of sanctions. Within two years of Operation Desert Storm, the city had been rebuilt.

Today, the city is a mix of neo-colonialism, Eastern folklore, and old-fashioned Iraqi resilience. The city is clean, the roads are paved, food is in abundance, and merchants bartering in Western goods are everywhere. There are even cellphones, luxury cars and Internet caf*s.

But travelling to southern Iraq is like travelling back in time. Anywhere south of the no-fly zone, the buildings are decrepit, the water is repugnant, and essential government services like sanitation and health care are virtually non-existent. In some extreme cases, the streets are even lined with sewage. A typical diet consists of tea and lentils, and if one is fortunate, perhaps some rice. With a basic per capita income of less than $5 (U.S.) per month, most southern Iraqis lack the basic means to support themselves.

The greatest tragedy for many is the loss of their dignity. With inflated food prices and insufficient income, many southern Iraqis have had no choice but to work for the government, enlist in the army, or in the worst cases, become informants. Nowhere in the world can you see such an odd plethora of soldiers, civil servants, undercover agents and government-appointed clerics.

The sanctions are not crippling the entire country, as some pundits would have us believe. While the sanctions and the oil-for-food monitoring committees regulate which goods can enter Iraq, the U.N. has little power to control distribution. This allows Iraqi President Saddam Hussein a free hand to ensure that the brunt of the sanctions is felt only in the south.

Many who argue for the lifting of the sanctions don't realize that lifting them is only the first step. This is why the current debate over the efficacy of "smart sanctions" is so misleading. While smart sanctions will allow "civilian-use" items into the country, they will not be directed to where they are needed most. The bulk of the goods will be consumed by Baghdad, and, as usual, the south will be left to pick up the crumbs.

But then again, the southern Iraqis are no strangers to adversity. Living under sanctions is difficult, but living under Saddam is a nightmare.

When Saddam came to power, he undertook a series of measures to cripple the south. In 1980, fearing a revolt, he had a number of prominent clerics killed. He shut down the millennia-old religious seminaries in Najaf. Dissidents were tortured or killed. So were their families and anyone associated with them.

In the mid-1980s, the``Butcher of Baghdad'' built a series of dams throughout the marsh regions near Tigris and Euphrates.

For more than 3,000 years, southern Iraqis had relied upon these marshes for agriculture, transportation and income. But with the marshes drained, the ancient lifestyle of marsh Arabs was destroyed. Those who didn't starve to death were forced to relocate, and thousands became vagabonds.

In light of such hardships, it is no surprise that the southern Iraqis have such a close attachment to al-Husayn.

As one of the two grandsons of the Prophet Muhammad, al-Husayn holds a special status in Islam. By A.D. 670, barely 40 years after the death of the Prophet, the Islamic world (which already spanned from North Africa to parts of Indo-China) found itself governed by the Umayyads. The regime was callous and those who protested were often killed or exiled. In 681, al-Husayn risked his life by declaring his opposition to the regime.

His opposition was short-lived. On a trek through the deserts of Karbala, al-Husayn and a small group of friends and family members were intercepted by Umayyad troops. After a three-day standoff, he and his partisans - including women, infants and the elderly - were massacred.

The overwhelming consensus among Muslims is that al-Husayn dedicated himself to a just cause and that ultimately, he gave his life for it. Both Sunnis and Shi'ites have come to revere him not only for his martyrdom, but also for his upright character and refusal to succumb to an oppressive authority.

He has a special place in the hearts of the southern Iraqis, who have been living under the shadow of oppression.

So while the world's leaders fine-tune their latest scheme to keep Iraq at bay, the southern Iraqis will do what they have always done: They will continue to visit the mausoleum of al-Husayn, and remind themselves of his epic, waiting for someone of his calibre to rise and lift them from the yoke of oppression.

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