NEWS & FEATURE: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad; U.S. kills allies; U.S. Army desertion rate up 80 percent

When night falls, the assassins gather in Hayaniya Square

Hayaniya Square in Basra is a busy intersection leading to a poor and run-down neighbourhood. On one side of the piazza, sewage water flows through what was once a dried-up river bed, filling the air with an oppressive smell. On the other side, a pair of kebab stalls send columns of smoke from skewers of burning meat into the warm air. Two sheep, whose fate lies on those skewers, stand tethered to a nearby telegraph pole.

The square is dominated by a painting of six men dressed in casual trousers and jackets, behind whom loom the faces of Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Mahdi army, and his father, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr. The six men, described on the mural as martyrs, are Mahdi army commanders who were killed by the British.

At night, when traffic in the square slows, a group of men gather. These are the sakkaka, or assassins. Their Toyota saloons, chosen for the voluminous boots that can accommodate two bodies with room to spare, stand parked nearby.

The assassins chat, eat kebabs and stroll around in small groups, discussing their sinister trade. They buy and sell names of collaborators, Iraqis who worked for the British, as well as journalists and uncooperative police officers, businessmen and the footsoldiers of other militias.

Depending on the nature of their perceived crime, the price on a collaborator’s head can vary from couple of hundred dollars to a few thousand. The most valuable lives these days in Basra are those of the interpreters and contractors who were employed by the British before they withdrew from the city. [complete article]

Sunni group says U.S. killed its members

A tribal group tapped by American forces to root out extremists here said Friday that more than four dozen of its members were killed during United States air and ground strikes north of the capital this week. But the United States military insisted that the attacks had been aimed instead at Al Qaeda and had killed 25 insurgents.

“We had some people on the ground who identified these individuals as bad guys, basically,” said Lt. Justin Cole, a spokesman for the coalition forces. “That’s why we engaged. And there is really no change in our posture since then.”

The attacks were mounted late Tuesday near Taji, a restive town 15 miles north of Baghdad, after American forces said they saw armed men in the area and detected “hostile intent.” Helicopters and airplanes strafed buildings, and ground troops later exchanged fire with men who had shot at them, according to the military version of events. Three weapons caches were found that contained, among other things, antiaircraft machine guns, missiles and a wide array of explosive devices, the military said.

Yet Sheik Jasim Zaidan Khalaf, who heads one of the area’s American-backed tribal groups, known as an Awakening Council, said the Americans had erred in the attack. The sheik said his council had been active in purging the area of militants belonging to Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia, a homegrown Sunni extremist group. The council recently detained 20 insurgents from the group, the sheik said, and confiscated their weapons with the intent of turning them over to United States forces. “The Americans suspected our people,” the sheik said. “The whole issue started with a mistake.” [complete article]

Army desertion rate up 80 pct. since ’03

Soldiers strained by six years at war are deserting their posts at the highest rate since 1980, with the number of Army deserters this year showing an 80 percent increase since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003.

While the totals are still far lower than they were during the Vietnam War, when the draft was in effect, they show a steady increase over the past four years and a 42 percent jump since last year. [complete article]

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