Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page


Six weeks after the British forces took over the city, Basra continued to suffer from lack of security and a serious crime wave. The city's streets showed some visible signs of improved security: traffic was heavy, apparently almost back to pre-war levels, and the shops on the main thoroughfares remained open until 10 p.m. But gunfire was still a nightly occurrence, averaging about thirty incidents of single or multiple gunshot incidents every night.20 Basra's hospitals reported some three to five gunshot homicides daily, with another five to seven cases of injuries attributed to gunshots.21 Physicians told Human Rights Watch that gunshot wounds before the war, limited to one or two a month at each hospital, were mostly of an accidental nature, while after the war intentional gunshot wounds predominated.22

The frenzy of the first week of looting of money and furnishings in government buildings gave way to more systematic stripping down of public buildings, including the university, and violent thefts of private property and of individuals. In addition, reports of reprisal killings were on the increase in some areas of southern Iraq.

The overall scale of the security problems was (and remains) difficult to fully assess in the absence of reporting by local media and without a centralized system of data gathering about criminal activity. In such circumstances the rumor mill turned a single criminal incident into a whole series of crimes. As an example, one widespread rumor about criminality concerned a rash of carjackings purportedly taking place in the Basra region in the first week of May. Human Rights Watch researchers contacted mosques, hospitals, and other community centers to gather information, and found that in some instances, the same incident was recounted several times as separate incidents, falsely inflating the sense of insecurity. Nevertheless, it was obvious that violent carjackings were taking place throughout the Basra region at a high rate, rendering traffic on secondary roads in the city, and major roads outside the city, vulnerable to attack. Human Rights Watch documented five incidents between May 1 and May 4 alone, targeting pickup trucks, sports utility vehicles, and microbuses.

On May 3, six men with handguns surrounded a house in Basra's al-Jenina quarter and stole the family's car by holding the owner's eight-year-old son at gunpoint. Walid Hamid Kadhim, thirty years old, is the car owner's brother-in-law:

    We were inside the house after lunch, when the looters lured the children outside [the house] by offers of money. When my brother-in-law [Nasir `Abdul Hussein] went out to see what was going on, the looters held his son and put a handgun to his head. They said we want your pickup truck. Nasir tried to reason with them, but they quarreled and the looters threatened his child. So he said leave my child and take the car. They said if you tell the British about this we will come back and kill your child.23

Karim Salem Khiwan, 42, manager of the oil company in al-'Amara, some 185 kilometers north of Basra, was shot during a carjacking on the road between al-'Amara and Basra on May 4.

    I was accompanying four company tanker trucks from al-'Amara to Basra. I was seated in a pickup truck at the end of the convoy, next to the driver, with two passengers on the back seats. Suddenly, a land cruiser [generic reference to sports utility vehicles] and three pickup trucks full of armed people drove up and surrounded our vehicle. The driver stopped the vehicle and I asked the armed people what they wanted. Without any warning, they started shooting at close range. I was hit in the back. I was nevertheless able to leave the car with the other passengers.

Karim Salem was hospitalized in al-Ta'limi hospital in Basra.24

Another series of incidents plagued a single family in rapid succession, raising the possibility that the family was somehow targeted for its wealth and position with the former Iraqi government.

On the night of May 1, `Ali Rahim Muhammad, a thirty-year-old policeman, was riding in his vehicle alone when five men in another car armed with Kalashnikov guns attacked and forced him to pull out. As `Ali Muhammad explained, "One of the assailants put a gun against my head and a rope around my neck. The same attacker dragged me to the sidewalk while another one got into the car. Someone then shouted: `Let's kill him,' but I then heard someone else ordering the others to let me go. The men left the place quickly with the car, a Honda microbus."

The next day, someone came to `Ali Muhammad's family's house and claimed to know where the car was. This person was able to recount precisely all the details of the carjacking and said that the vehicle could be found in al-Qurna district, 60 kilometers north of Basra. `Ali Muhammad's older brother, Tahseen Rahim Muhammad, thirty-five years old, decided to go to Qurna and the informer introduced him to another person who agreed to take him there.

Tahseen went to Qurna with several friends and, through a chain of contacts, was able to meet a group of armed people in possession of the car. According to Tahseen, the armed group belonged to the same tribe as the carjackers. Tahseen negotiated with them and paid a sum of one million Iraqi dinars [then equivalent to about U.S. $500] to retrieve the vehicle.25

On May 2, when `Ali's sixty-year-old father, Ibrahim Muhammad Sindal, a senior manager with a maritime commercial firm in Baghdad, received word that his son had been attacked and his vehicle stolen, he decided to go from his home in al-'Amara to Basra to help his family. A few miles before al-`Uzayr, 100 kilometers north of Basra, Ibrahim Muhammad realized that another car was following his Mercedes. After entering the village of al-`Uzayr, Ibrahim Muhamaed stopped his car in a crowded area in order to discourage the attackers. Nevertheless the attackers drove next to him and scared the crowd off with their guns. They threatened Ibrahim Muhammad, who was forced to pay his assailants the equivalent of US$200. Once the money was paid, the attackers quickly left the area.

Two other brothers of the family, Qusay Rahim Muhammad, twenty-five years old, and Muhammad Rahim Muhammad, a thirty-two-year old driver, left Baghdad by car for Basra at 3 p.m. on May 2 with three other people in their car to help their father and their family. At around 6 p.m., while approaching al-`Aizar village, the road was blocked by another car and they were forced to stop. They realized too late that a fake accident had been set up and that six men carrying Kalashnikovs were waiting for them. Without any warning, the gang started shooting at them. Muhammad was hit in the back but managed to pass the assailants' car and sped away. Qusay was also hit by a bullet in his right arm. The three other passengers were unharmed. They informed the British army in the next village, 80 kilometers from Basra. The British provided first aid, and then convoyed them with two cars to the main road. The two brothers decided to return to al-'Amara to spend the night there. They eventually stayed one night at al-'Amara's hospital. The next morning, they came to Basra's al-Ta`limi hospital, where Human Rights Watch interviewed them.26

Homicides and Possible Reprisal Killings
The targeted attack on the Rahim Muhammad family raised the possibility that the family may have been targeted for its wealth or possible links to the former government of Iraq. This latter motive holds troubling implications, given the history of severe political reprisals that occurred in Basra after the 1991 Gulf War. According to information provided by hospital staff, Basra witnessed a nearly thirty-fold increase in gunshot homicides and injuries in the first month after British forces entered the city, but because of the absence of any police investigative capability, it was very difficult to ascertain what motivated these homicides.

Western journalists who arrived in Basra immediately after British troops reported seeing dozens of corpses around the cities, reportedly belonging to Ba'th Party members and military officials.27 However, such open targeting of officials of the former government clearly subsided after the first week of British control. After the initial period of violence Human Rights Watch received unconfirmed reports of nearly a dozen such attacks in Basra during the last week of April and the first two weeks of May, but could only gather detailed information about three possible reprisal attacks in the Basra region. Of these, Human Rights Watch could not confirm the nature of two of the incidents due to the reluctance of the families of the victims to speak publicly and thus to identify themselves as having had positions with the Ba'th Party or the former Iraqi government. An other incident, however, seems clearly to have been an instance of reprisal killing.

In that instance, Human Rights Watch spoke to the family of twenty-six-year-old `Abdullah Sa'dun, who was killed on April 22 by a masked gunman who stepped out of a car, shot him, and then drove off. `Abdullah owned a compact disc distributing business, but there was no suggestion that his commercial activities had made him a potential target of violence. The Sa'dun family has been powerful in Basra for many decades, cooperating with successive Iraqi governments since the Second World War, including that of Saddam Hussein. Twenty-one year old Ahmad Turki Za'abi, a close friend of `Abdullah, witnessed his murder.

    At about 11 p.m. we were at the end of this street in front of some shops. There were five or six of us, just standing around. A Toyota pickup truck drove up. It looked like a government car, but it was probably stolen. There were two people inside. They stopped next to us. The passenger left the car with a handgun. He had his face covered. When `Abdullah saw him he said `God save me.' The man shot `Abdullah once in the abdomen and once in his chest. The shooter was about five meters away from `Abdullah.28

`Abdullah's father, `Abdul Majid al-Sa'dun, denied that his son's murder was motivated by the family's previous activities, although he could not explain why his son would be targeted in public, without any attempts to attack his companions or to rob him.29 Other family members indicated that they viewed the attack as an attack on the family, and not just `Abdullah. Walid Sabri Sa'dun, forty, was `Abdullah's cousin and brother-in-law. He stated that after `Abdullah's murder, he was concerned for the security of the rest of the family, and that he had asked British forces to protect the family from any further attacks. "If they don't do it, then they should let us do it," he said. "We have guns and we can protect ourselves."30

As more and more gravesites around Iraq are exhumed and bodies are identified, Human Rights Watch is concerned that this may inflame the desire for reprisal and further violence targeting officials of the former government of Iraq, members of the Ba'th Party, and their families.

For instance, the city of al-'Amara, 185 kilometers north of Basra, with a population of about 350,000, reported five homicides related to attacks on Ba'th party members and their families and several incidents of arson against their residences. According to British and Iraqi law enforcement officials, these incidents, all of which occurred since the last week of April and the beginning of May, reflect the settling of scores based on the availability of once-secret documents from the Iraqi government that identify government agents and collaborators.31

British and local Iraqi police officers independently confirmed for Human Rights Watch the account of the first widely reported instance of reprisal and counter reprisal in al-`Amara: Salam Ghanim Batul discovered that his brother, Rahim, missing since 1991, was among the bodies found in a grave site near Baghdad after the fall of the Iraqi government. Salam Batul apparently identified the person responsible for naming his brother to the government through documents found after the ransacking of the offices of security and intelligence forces. Since this person was already dead, Salam Batoul sought out his son, Najim Abboud Araby, and killed him in public at 11 a.m. on April 22. That afternoon, members of the Araby family attacked Salam Batul's residence, killed Salam, and burned his house.32

In another case, forty-five year old Mahmood Dawood Menni was killed in his shop, apparently in retaliation for the role played by his brother, Karim Dawood Menni, a local senior Ba'th Party member, in the death of several opponents of the Iraqi government. British and local officials stated that Mahmood was not in any way active with the Ba'th Party or the government, but that the customs of blood-feuds and retaliation made him a target for revenge by his brother's possible victims.

Human Rights Watch was also told by local officials of several attacks on family members of Ba'th Party members, including one shooting of a wife of a Ba'th Party member, and at least two cases of arson directed at residences of families of Ba'th Party members. Local law enforcement officials, with British assistance, have positioned extra patrols around the residential quarters of Ba'th Party members, in part to protect them from reprisals, and in part to monitor their activities.33

Lack of Security and Humanitarian and Medical Operations
International humanitarian law as embodied in the Geneva Conventions explicitly obliges the occupying power to ensure the safety of humanitarian and medical personnel in carrying out their operations.34 Six weeks after the fall of Basra, lack of security and criminal activity were among the most serious problems facing humanitarian groups and hospitals. Large areas of the city remained off-limits to U.N. agencies and aid groups. At least one medical NGO faced an attempted forced entry by armed men. Hospitals and major institutions also complained about ongoing problems with looters and criminals.

In the first two weeks of May, armed carjackers stole two vehicles from the Ibn Ghazwan Pediatric Hospital. According to the hospital's director, the hospital's minibus, used for transporting staff to and from work, was carjacked in broad daylight on a major thoroughfare and its driver was pistol-whipped. A week later, a Land Rover belonging to the hospital was stolen on May 14 when its driver was threatened with a gun held to his head. Dr. `Issa, the hospital's director, was concerned that his staff, particularly women, would refuse to report to duty unless security improved.35

Inside the hospitals, on several occasions, patients or their relatives have brandished weapons and threatened physicians with bodily harm. Human Rights Watch was told that at least one such incident occurred daily at the city's three main hospitals. As recently as May 25, the United Nations reported that a patient was murdered inside the al-Ta'limi hospital, while intimidation of hospital staff by armed members of patients' families was routine.36

One of the most highly publicized and troubling incidents of this sort occurred on May 7 at al-Ta'limi Hospital, when aggressive visitors to the hospital brandishing weapons threatened the hospital's director, Dr. Akram Hamudi because they insisted he provide a different course of treatment to save the life of their family member. Dr. Hamudi, a very highly regarded member of Basra's medical community and the teacher of many of the physicians with whom Human Rights Watch spoke, lost ten members of his own family as a result of coalition bombing on April 5. After he was threatened in this way, he felt unable to continue working at the hospital.

Some of these problems have occurred despite the presence of British troops ostensibly to provide security at the hospitals. Human Rights Watch researchers discovered very little coordination between hospital staff and British security forces, often simply because they did not or could not speak to each other. British military personnel provided Basra's main hospitals with a contact telephone number in case of emergencies, but physicians expressed dissatisfaction about this arrangement, saying that emergencies often were too sudden and too chaotic to enable physicians to call for British assistance.37 The physicians complained of inattentiveness by British soldiers, who in turn complained that they were frequently not told about security problems until long after they had been resolved.38

Medical staff, particularly women, expressed strong concerns about their working conditions and the insecurity of their commute to and from work. At al-Ta`limi hospital, the administration requested that all staff, particularly women, travel in groups; the hospital uses ambulances to transport some staff who live in particularly dangerous neighborhoods.39 Female staff are also particularly vulnerable while at work. Dr. Uruba Mazhar Hassan explained that she and her colleagues regularly face threatening situations at the hospital because of the large number of criminal suspects brought in for treatment. Dr. Hassan also repeated the concern voiced by several other physicians about the inability to protect medical staff from distraught or hostile family members of patients.40 While these concerns, and their impact on medical staff, are very real, Human Rights Watch researchers could not confirm any serious incidents of attacks on female hospital medical staff.

Problems Particular to Women and Children
In situations of extreme lack of security, women may be targeted for sexual harassment and assaults, and Human Rights Watch received several reports about kidnappings and rapes in Basra. Due to the sensitive nature of such crimes and the conservative religious atmosphere of Basra, it is extremely difficult to document attacks which include elements of sexual violence. Human Rights Watch therefore could not confirm a pattern of attacks targeting women. However, based on discussions with medical personnel, Human Rights Watch confirmed three incidents of abduction of girls or women, possibly involving sexual violence. One incident, occurring on the week of May 11, involved the daytime abduction of a young woman from a city street; the woman's body was found three days later in a field outside the city.41 Two others incidents, both of which occurred in the first week of May, apparently involved family disputes. Human Rights Watch could not establish whether there were further such incidents during this time period, nor could Human Rights Watch ascertain the incidence of sexual violence in Basra before British occupation in order to provide a basis for comparison.

The general fear of attacks on women and girls also affected students, particularly girls at schools and university. Female students at Basra University expressed their worry about going back to the university or attending classes while looters and scavengers still freely roamed the university. Younger students had similar worries. While most parents with whom Human Rights Watch spoke generally welcomed the reopening of schools, they also expressed their concern about the security of their children. Parents looked to British forces to ensure the security of children on their way to and from school. Another major source of concern for parents was the widespread presence of unused ammunition and unexploded ordinance in many schools. Human Rights Watch documented several instances of children maiming or killing themselves while playing with ammunition or explosives.42

Continuing Lack of Security at Basra University
More than a month after British occupation and the unbridled vandalism that followed it, looting at Basra University had subsided to haphazard scavenging. On two separate occasions when Human Rights Watch visited the university in mid-May, small groups of men could be readily seen hauling away the few remaining items of any value-window frames, cables, even ceiling tiles-on handcarts. "The worst of the looting is now over," Prof. Sa'adkhan, a member of the faculty of arts, said. "But that is because there is nothing left to loot."43

Still, insecurity at the university remained a very real threat. Prof. Kadhim `Ali, another member of the faculty of arts, said "A week ago [on May 8] we were threatened by looters in broad daylight. They wanted to steal the electrical cables. So a group of professors went to the British to ask for patrols. A tank came and stood by the university that night for a few hours and then left. No British soldiers have come back to help us yet."44

As of May 14, the day of Human Rights Watch's final visit to the university, there was no schedule for resumption of classes. The university will require a massive investment to repair its buildings and provide even basic facilities required for teaching.

20 Joint NGO Emergency Preparedness Initiative, Situation Report, May 21, 2003.

21 Human Rights Watch interview, Dr. Heidar T. al-Ba'aj, Basra, May 17, 2003.

22 Human Rights Watch interview, Dr. `Adnan al-`Azari, deputy director, al-Ta'limi Hospital, Basra, May 5, 2003.

23 Human Rights Watch interview, Walid Hamid Kadhim, Basra, May 4, 2003.

24 Human Rights Watch interview, Karim Salim Khiwan, Basra, May 4, 2003.

25 Human Rights Watch interview, Ali Rahim Muhammad, Basra, May 4, 2003.

26 Human Rights Watch interview, Muhammad Rahim Muhammad, Basra, May 4, 2003.

27 Human Rights Watch interview, New York Times journalists Marc Santora and Alan Chin, Basra, May 11, 2003.

28 Human Rights Watch interview, Ahmad Turki Za'abi, Basra, April 24, 2003.

29 Human Rights Watch interview, `Abdul Majid al-Sa'dun, Basra, April 24, 2003.

30 Human Rights Watch interview, Basra, April 24, 2003.

31 Human Rights Watch interview, Brigadier Sabir, al-'Amara's chief of police, al-'Amara, May 10, 2003; Human Rights Watch interview, Major Brin Parry-Jones, Royal Military Police, al-'Amara, May 10, 2003.

32 Human Rights Watch interviews, al-'Amara, May 10, 2003.

33 Ibid.

34 Fourth Geneva Convention, arts. 18 and 56, among others, explicitly oblige the occupying power to ensure the proper functioning of hospitals and medical staff.

35 Human Rights Watch interview, Dr. As'ad `Issa, Basra, May 17, 2003.

36 United Nations Iraq Security Office, Security Update, May 25, 2003.

37 Human Rights Watch interview, Dr. Heidar T. al-Ba'aj, al-Ta'limi Hospital, Basra, May 17, 2003.

38 Human Rights Watch interview with staff of al-Jumhuri General Hospital, and British tank crew stationed on hospital grounds, May 5, 2003.

39 Human Rights Watch interview, Dr. Heidar T. al-Ba'aj.

40 Human Rights Watch interview, Dr. Uruba Mazhar Hassan, Basra, May 17, 2003.

41 Human Rights Watch interview, Dr. A., name withheld on request, May 17, 2003.

42 See Human Rights Watch Press Release, "Basra: Unprotected Munitions Injure Civilians," May 6, 2003.

43 Human Rights Watch interview, Prof. Ramadhan M. Sa'adkhan, Basra, May 12, 2003.

44 Human Rights Watch interview, Prof. Kadhim `Ali, Basra, May 12, 2003.

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page