Basra Melee

The crowd gathered outside the house of Muzahim Mustafa Kanan al Tamimi, the sheikh the British are appointing to take over civil administration of Basra. He's better known as Gen. Al Tamimi, a former brigadier in Saddam's army who more recently taught at the military school. When the shouting began, we thought at first the crowd was just chanting slogans against Saddam Hussein's Baathists, but they were also chanting against Sheikh Muzahim. "No no Baathists, no Muzahim."

Sheik Muzahim's supporters inside the house, including some 42 tribal leaders, said the crowd were all members of a rival tribe, the al Sadouni. That's a strongly Baathist tribe, whose leader, Sadeq al Sadouni, was the top Baathist official in Basra. But were they really Sadouni? It was hard to tell. Said the sheik's cousin, Sheik Mansour Kanan, "To take a metaphorical example, when a person dies the family start fighting over his property." It was, he noted, "because of the coming of the death of our dictator."

The crowd began stoning the house and a wild melee ensued. Unable to get to our cars safely, we called British troops, who soon responded. In the meantime, the sheik's followers dug out their AK-47s, wrapped in blankets and got ready. "Let's shoot in the air," one of them said. Mansour cautioned calm. "Don't shoot unless they shoot first." Fortunately it didn't come to that, but even the arrival of British troops was unable to calm the crowd outside. Instead, the local imam, Said Naim, arrived with a bullhorn and addressed the crowd, reassuring them that the British would invite him to a meeting on forming a government and he would oppose all tribal leaders.

We made it to our cars OK--the crowd wanted us to talk to them instead of listening to their tribal rivals. They accused sheik Muzahim of being a Baathist who would bring back the dictatorship, and indeed when journalists saw him in Basra later, it was in the home of a local businessman who still had a portrait of Saddam on his wall. Elsewhere, the crowds commandeered a bus and put a chain on it to drag a statue of Saddam off its pedestal, and drove around dragging it while people beat the effigy with sticks.

We soon got in trouble again. A demonstration in the Shiite slum of al Hiyaniyah made its way up a broad, trash-and-rubble-strewn highway, flying a green flag of a banned Shiite group and banners with Ayatollah Khomeini's portrait. Taking us for British troops, the crowd began pursuing our cars; some were trying to stop us to denounce us for imposing a Baathist sheik on them, while others were stoning our cars.

It's all a pretty scary preview of things to come throughout Iraq--especially in the Shiite areas--as Iraqis and Coalition forces try to unravel the tangle of tribal politics, Baathist collaborators, and religious passions. Unless they do, they won't be able to restore much needed civil order in Basra and many other cities as well. British forces have been here since Sunday, and looting continues apace. At the moment I'm writing this, in fact, looters in several cars armed with AK-47s have been trying to break down the gates of the hospital. We're only hoping they hold until British troops arrive once again.