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In a Gypsy Village's Fate, An Image of Iraq's Future

By Anthony Shadid

Washington Post Foreign Service
April 3, 2004; Page A18

QAWLIYA, Iraq -- No one lives here anymore.

A month ago, Qawliya's collection of perhaps 150 homes in southern Iraq contained a small red-light district, an isolated warren known for prostitution and gunrunning and as a haven from the law. Today, it is destroyed, the few sounds of life made by barking dogs and scavengers piling bricks from razed homes.

Its residents -- hundreds of men, women and children, mostly members of Iraq's tiny Gypsy minority -- were driven out by a militia controlled by a militant Shiite Muslim cleric, residents and police say. Neighbors systematically looted it. Some accounts say the village was burned, though the militia denies it.

No one has been punished, police say. The U.S.-led occupation, which learned of the raid soon after it happened on March 12, has yet to make it public. Qawliya's residents, most of whom fled to other cities, largely remain in hiding, fearful to talk.

Qawliya's fate is a grim tale about the forces that are shaping southern Iraq as the civil occupation nears an end -- the ascent of religious militias, the frailty of outgunned police and the perceived reluctance of foreign peacekeepers to play an assertive role. Making those factors more combustible, residents say, is the question of whose law rules Iraq's people.

"We're looking at it as a human rights thing," said Steve Casteel, the Coalition Provisional Authority official who oversees Iraq's Interior Ministry.

He said that the police chief and his deputy in nearby Diwaniyah would be replaced, although the deputy said that neither had heard word of their firing. The police "didn't do something for sure, and there may have been complicity as well," Casteel said.

But he added that he was reluctant to say more until he received the report of an investigation into the incident.

Accounts diverge on the precise sequence of events that led to the destruction of Qawliya, a village of concrete and brick homes perched along a drainage canal about 100 miles southeast of Baghdad. Inhabited by more than 1,000 Shiite Muslim Gypsies, the village was synonymous with its people -- qawliya is an Arabic word for Gypsies. For decades the activities here, sharpened by a prejudice that tails the handful of Gypsy communities across Iraq and the Arab world, had generated local resentment.

"You know this village, it's a Gypsy village," said Brig. Hamid Abed Zeid, the deputy police commander in Diwaniyah. "You know what goes on there -- illegal activities, drugs, crime, looting. You know these activities are against Islamic injunctions."

On the morning of March 12, a Friday, a group of about 20 militiamen went to the village "without police knowledge," Zeid said. They belonged to the Mahdi Army, a force organized last year by Moqtada Sadr, a young, militant cleric who caters to the poor and disenfranchised of Iraq's Shiite majority and has maintained a relentlessly anti-occupation stance. Zeid said a fight broke out, and residents killed one of Sadr's followers. The Mahdi Army retreated. In the late afternoon, it returned -- with more than 100 men.

"There was intense fighting that followed," he said.

Both sides, he said, were armed with Kalashnikov rifles -- the weapon of choice in Iraq -- as well as mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. Hours into the battle, he said, police intervened and helped evacuate the residents. Once they left, looters set upon the village and, through the night, systematically stole everything of value. Days later, the village was largely rubble.

The residents, Zeid said, fled to nearby southern cities -- Karbala, Najaf and Hilla. He did not know whether anyone was killed.

"For their sake, we asked them to leave the place," he said. "They were facing death."

He said police have not sought any arrests, since Sadr's office has denied involvement. As for the looting, he said, it was too late in the night and the location was too remote to do anything about it.

"It's a wide-open area," Zeid said. "It faces the desert. It's difficult to keep control over all of it."

Others painted a similar picture but differed on key details.

Some insisted the battle was far more one-sided and that the militia occupied the village, then used a bulldozer to knock down homes and set fire to the ruins. The walls of some houses are still charred, along with thatched roofs lying in the streets. There were few casualties, residents said, because the village appeared to have been tipped off before the attack. Several residents said the militiamen had come to retrieve a girl from Diwaniyah who was either abducted or had sought refuge in Qawliya.

That was the justification cited by Hussein Tawil, a spokesman for Sadr's office in Diwaniyah, who wore a pistol slung around his chest. Two Kalashnikov rifles sat in the corner of his cramped office, which was lined with four plastic chairs and a wooden stool.

"They provided a fertile land for sinning," said Tawil, a burly man. "There were so many crimes in that village."

For months, Tawil said, Sadr's office had sought to reform the village. It had offered to send a preacher to serve there, provide religious CDs and videos, hold Friday prayers in the town and send five of its residents to the seminary in Najaf. "Since the fall of the regime, we tried to call on these people to improve," he said. "I wanted to give them an opportunity for a decent life."

"They refused," he added.

The day before the incident, Tawil said, a Diwaniyah resident came to the office and complained that his 12-year-old daughter had been abducted and taken to Qawliya. He brought a picture. The next morning, the office sent two cars with eight men, some armed, to retrieve her. Their questions angered some villagers in Qawliya, who killed 25-year-old Ghassan Jawdi Mahmudi and wounded another man. The office has distributed flyers with Mahmudi's picture, commemorating him as the Mahdi Army's "first martyr" in the province.

"Our guys escaped," Tawil said. "They even left behind the body and the cars." That was the extent of the militia's involvement, and accounts suggesting otherwise were "delusions," Tawil said. What followed was revenge by the village's neighbors, who had long-standing land disputes with Qawliya. He said the office had forbidden the looting that ensued, "but no one listened."

A ragtag and often ridiculed group, the Mahdi Army has grown from just a few hundred members last August into a force estimated to number between 6,000 and 10,000, with an elaborate hierarchy and a formidable organization. It is still outnumbered by the Badr Organization, a force thought to number 10,000 that belongs to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the leading Shiite Muslim groups and a member of Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council. Besides those two militias, the Dawa party, another influential Islamic group, and a mystical cleric named Sarkhi Hassani control smaller bands of armed men.

While the U.S.-led occupation has outlawed the carrying of unlicensed weapons, it remains divided on how to respond to the growing power of the militias, which have flourished in the fragile security environment. Residents from Basra in the south to cities far to the north complain of the power they wield. The Sadr militia, in particular, often acts as the executive arm of Islamic courts set up in many southern cities, and reports of abuses -- torture, illegal arrests and intimidation -- are numerous.

The police say they remain too weak to do anything about Sadr's men. In Diwaniyah, Zeid estimated that the Mahdi Army numbers between 900 and 1,000, compared with 4,200 police.

"But the police hold only a Kalashnikov or a pistol," he said. "The two sides are not balanced. How can the police fight a battle like that?"

As for cracking down on groups such as the Mahdi Army, he said, "We could arrest them, but that would open up an entirely different problem, which shouldn't be opened at this time."

In Qawliya, three weeks after the attack, little remains. The walls of nearly every house are at least partially torn down, their roofs gone. The doors were removed, as were the window frames. Overturned desks, their tables missing, were tossed aside inside a school. Rubble is strewn through the half-dozen streets, shaded by a few scraggly eucalyptus trees. The remnants of daily life litter the wreckage -- brightly colored fabric caked with dust, shoes and sandals, tins of cooking oil.

On one day recently, men were loading some of the scattered bricks, which go for between 3 cents and 7 cents each, onto trucks and tractors. Little concern was expressed about the residents' fate.

"The people are happy that they're gone," said Hussein Mohammed, an 18-year-old vendor selling drinks to the scavengers.

Abbas Hussein and Ali Hassan were among those tossing bricks in a truck, their clothes coated with fine dust.

"Is it forbidden or permitted under Islam to take these bricks?" 21-year-old Hussein asked a visitor. He offered what he called the judgments of leading Shiite clerics, the most prominent of whom he said forbade it. No matter, he said.

"When everyone comes together, it's a party," he said. "Since everybody's doing it, I'll do it, too."

His friend, 24-year-old Hassan, walked down the street. He saw an Arabic book for elementary school students tossed amid the rubble. He bent over, picked it up, then casually leafed through its pages.

"I think it's forbidden what the people have done to them," he said. "They were families. They kept to themselves."

Correspondent Karl Vick and special correspondent Naseer Nouri in Baghdad contributed to this report.
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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of each individual author. The views and opinions do not represent those held by the Dom Research Center.

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