Shia Fury Erupts

by PATRICK COCKBURN

Hundreds of foreign workers are being hurriedly evacuated from Basra in southern Iraq following violent protests by Iraqi oil workers and villagers over two incidents.

In one of them, a British security man tore down a poster or flag bearing the image of Imam Hussein, a figure highly revered by Shia Muslims. The violence may make international oil companies more nervous about operating in Iraq, which is at the centre of the largest oil development boom in the world.

The fighting started on Monday when oil workers refused to remove Shia banners and flags when asked to do so by a British security adviser who then took them down himself – by one account, tearing a poster of Imam Hussein.

This happened just before Ashura, the Shia day of mourning for the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, who was killed by the Caliph Yazid at the battle of Kerbala in 680, the anniversary of which falls today.

An Iraqi witness was reported as saying: “Workers were provoked and squabbled with the British guy, but he suddenly pulled a pistol and started shooting and wounded one Iraqi worker.” The man was later removed to hospital bleeding heavily.

The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has called for the deportation of the unnamed British security man. Iraqi officials in Basra said he worked for the security firm G4S at a camp run by Schlumberger, the world’s largest oilfield services company. The camp is near the giant Rumaila field, close to the border with Kuwait, which produces a third of Iraq’s oil output. BP and China’s CNPC have been seeking rapidly to raise production at the field.

Accounts differ on exactly what happened, but there appear to have been at least two incidents when Shia oil workers and people living in nearby villages believed that images of their most venerated religious figures had been desecrated.

“A British employee took down a flag for Hussein and a picture of Imam Ali from the cars of the security company, and tore them down with a knife,” Ali Shaddad, a member of Basra’s provincial council, told Agence France-Presse. “This provoked a group of workers and they went and hit him repeatedly.”

At least part of this incident was caught on a video uploaded  to YouTube, It shows a man in a flak jacket being dragged from a white vehicle and hit repeatedly by men in dark blue T-shirts, who carry long sticks and spades. He falls occasionally but generally manages to stay on his feet before he is rescued by Iraqi soldiers. In the background is the wall of a Schlumberger camp, topped with barbed wire.

An Iraqi field engineer employed by Schlumberger describes the incident, saying it started at 10am on Monday when an Iraqi driver working for the security team attached a Shia holy flag to the antenna of one of the vehicles. He was asked to remove it by the head of security and refused, so “the team leader jumped up on the car and he tear up [sic] which made the Iraqi driver and his colleagues [all Shia] to be angry”. They reportedly called in protesters from outside the company to join the attack.

The days leading up to Ashura are always a particularly sensitive time in Iraq, with millions of Shia involved in the mourning ceremonies.

The Iraqi Oil Report website said that BP, the main operator at Rumaila, was scaling back its workforce and that employees of Baker Hughes and Schlumberger “were massed at Basra airport”. There were conflicting reports about whether the oil services companies were shutting down their operations.

In an earlier incident affecting Baker Hughes, an Egyptian worker had removed the flags commemorating Imam Ali and Imam Hussein from company vehicles. Protests prompted Iraqi authorities to arrest the Egyptian on charges of insulting a religion, while Baker Hughes suspended its operations in the country and declared force majeure because of “a significant disruption of business”.

In general, the international oil companies that have poured into Iraq in recent years are barely affected by the violence which is killing about 1,000 civilians a month. Most are Shia caught by blasts from car bombs and suicide bombers driving vehicles packed with explosives. The number of incidents and casualties has reached a level not seen since 2008, at the end of the last round of the Shia-Sunni civil war in which tens of thousands were killed. The deaths are mostly in the cities and towns of central and northern Iraq, while the oil companies are developing fields around Basra in the far south.

Their foreign workers live in fortified camps, protected by security companies, and move in well-protected convoys. At this time of year, Shia-dominated districts in Iraq are a forest of banners and flags, and walls are covered with portraits of revered religious leaders past and present.

Some 41 people, mostly Shia pilgrims, have been killed so far during the Ashura festival by bombings that bear the hallmarks of al-Qa’ida. In one attack, 17 pilgrims died and 65 were wounded by a suicide bomber who targeted a procession of pilgrims north of Baquba, near Baghdad, in a mixed Sunni-Shia province notorious for its violence.

Two million Shia are expected to make pilgrimage to the shrine of Imam Hussein in Kerbala today, protected by 35,000 soldiers. As part of the ritual, the mourners beat and cut their heads and chests and whip themselves with chains to emphasise their grief and as a sign of remorse for failing to defend Imam Hussein.

The quality of security firms in Iraq varies enormously. Some are highly disciplined and discreet, while others have been trigger-happy – making them extremely unpopular.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of  Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
Weekend Edition
September 4-6, 2015
Lawrence Ware
No Refuge: the Specter of White Supremacy Still Haunts Black America
Andrew Levine
Compassionate Conservatism: a Reconsideration and an Appreciation
Paul Street
Bi-Polar Disorder: Obama’s Environmental Bait-and-Switch Politics
Arun Gupta
Field Notes to Life During the Apocalypse
Steve Hendricks
Come Again? Second Thoughts on My Ashley Madison Affair
Ron Jacobs
Bernie Sanders’ Vision: As Myopic as Every Other Candidate or Not?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Arkansas Bloodsuckers: the Clintons, Prisoners and the Blood Trade
Richard W. Behan
Republican Fail, Advantage Sanders: the Indefensible Budget for Defense
Ted Rall
Call It By Its Name: Censorship
Susan Babbitt
“Swarms” Entering the UK? What We Can Still Learn About the Migrant Crisis From Che Guevara
Kali Akuno
Until We Win: Black Labor and Liberation in the Disposable Era
John Wight
Adrift Without Sanctuary: a Sick and Twisted Morality
Binoy Kampmark
Sieges in an Age of Austerity: Monitoring Julian Assange
Kathleen Wallace
The Child Has a Name, They All Do
David Rosen
Why So Few Riots?
Norm Kent
The Rent Boy Raid: Homeland Security Should Monitor Our Borders Not Our Bedrooms
John Helmer
IMF Officials Implicated in Theft, Concealment of Ukraine Loan Corruption
Michael Welton
Canada’s Arrogant Autocrat: the Rogue Politics of Stephen Harper
Patrick T. Hiller
There’s Nothing Collateral About a Toddler Washed Ashore
Ramzy Baroud
Palestine’s Crisis of Leadership: Did Abbas Destroy Palestinian Democracy?
Pepe Escobar
Say Hello to China’s New Toys
Sylvia C. Frain
Tiny Guam, Huge US Marine Base Expansions
Pete Dolack
Turning National Parks into Corporate Profit Centers
Ann Garrison
Africa’s Problem From Hell: Samantha Power
Christopher Brauchli
Poor, Poor, Pitiful Citigroup
Norman Pollack
Paradigm of a Fascist Mindset: Nicholas Burns on Iran
Roger Annis
Canada’s Web of Lies Over Syrian Refugee Crisis
Chris Zinda
Constitutional Crisis in the Heart of Dixie
Rannie Amiri
Everything Stinks: Beirut Protests and Garbage Politics
Missy Comley Beattie
In Order To Breathe
James McEnteer
Blast From the Past in Buenos Aires
Edward Leer
Love, Betrayal, and Donuts
Cesar Chelala
Cruelty is Not a Human Right
Louis Proyect
Migrating Through Hell: Quemada-Diez’s “La Jaula de Oro”
Charles R. Larson
Class and Colonialism in British Cairo
September 03, 2015
Sal Rodriguez
How California Prison Hunger Strikes Sparked Solitary Confinement Reforms
Lawrence Ware
Leave Michael Vick Alone: the Racism and Misogyny of Football Fans
Dave Lindorff
Is Obama the Worst President Ever?
Vijay Prashad
The Return of Social Democracy?
Ellen Brown
Quantitative Easing for People: Jeremy Corbyn’s Radical Proposal
Paul Craig Roberts
The Rise of the Inhumanes: Barron, Bybee, Yoo and Bradford
Binoy Kampmark
Inside Emailgate: Hillary’s Latest Problem
Lynn Holland
For the Love of Water: El Salvador’s Mining Ban
Geoff Dutton
Time for Some Anger Management
Jack Rasmus
The New Colonialism: Greece and Ukraine