Anti-Saddam hero goes on the run after police killing

By Patrick Cockburn in Baghdad

23 June 2004

Independent

A famous Iraqi guerrilla leader known as the "Lord of the Marshes", who fought Saddam Hussein, is on the run, accused of murdering a police chief after he tried to pacify villagers enraged by losing 34 dead in a shoot-out with British troops.

But Abdul Karim Mahoud al-Muhammadani, also known as Abu Hatem, has come to the aid of the British, denying that the bodies of some of the dead from the battle near Majar al-Kabir 20 miles south of Amarah, had been mutilated, as local doctors reported. He said it was more likely "they had been run over by armoured vehicles after they were dead".

The man who fought the old regime from the marshes of southern Iraq for 17 years is no fan of the current regime. He laughs bitterly at the irony that he is again in danger of arrest. "We are now an occupied country," he says. "What is the difference between the dictatorship of Saddam and the dictatorship of [Paul] Bremer [the American viceroy in Iraq?"

Sheikh al-Muhammadani had returned from his base in the city of Amarah in south Iraq to a safe-house in Baghdad. The Sheikh admitted to The Independent that his bodyguards had killed Major Muhammad Abdul Hassan al-Imshani, but said the officer had fired the first shot at him after an argument.

The sheikh said he had wanted the officer to release over a period of time some 20 bodies of men killed by the British to infuriated relatives in Majar al-Kabir, to avoid trouble. Major al-Imshani refused and, as Sheikh al-Muhammadani was getting into his vehicle to drive away, the shooting started.

The sheikh is influential in Majar al-Kabir and the great marshes where the Tigris and Euphrates meet, south of the impoverished city of Amarah. In the early 1990s, Saddam, irked by attacks from the marshes, ordered engineering works to drain them, destroying a 5,000-year-old unique civilisation based on reed houses, fishing and water buffaloes.

Sheikh al-Muhammadani hid with his men in dugouts in the sides of dried-up water courses. During the US-led invasion last year he led them to take Amarah, the provincial capital. It was the only Iraqi city to fall to the Iraqi Arab resistance. The CIA ordered him to retreat, the implied threat being that he would be bombed if he did not go.

The area around Amarah on the edge of the old marshes and close to the border with Iran is violent and anarchic. Smuggling is rife. Everybody is armed. After abortive attempts to search for arms, six British military policemen were killed in Majar al-Kabir last June when they were trapped in the police station.

Sheikh al-Muhammadani was a member of the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council. He co-operated with the British Army in and around Amarah. The sheikh asked local people to wait and see if the US and Britain would live up to their promises.

But when Muqtada Sadr, the radical Shia cleric, called for an uprising against the US, the sheikh's men joined him. The sheikh suspended his membership of the Governing Council in protest at the siege of Fallujah.

On 14 May, men from Majar al-Kabir, enraged that US troops were attacking the holy city of Najaf, ambushed British troops on the Basra-Amarah highway. They were badly beaten.

Sheikh al-Muhammadani says "there were 34 killed, of whom eight were left on the road, four later died of their injuries and 20 bodies were taken by the British."

Trouble started over the 20 bodies taken by the Army. Troops said they picked them up so they would not be eaten by wild animals. Local people asked if this was true, why were eight bodies left behind? The Army says they were not found.

Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, told MPs there would be an inquiry but denied the bodies had been mutilated, as claimed by Dr Adel Salid Majid, the hospital director in Majar al-Kabir. He said seven bodies showed signs of mutilation or torture.