Term of `governor' ends abruptly

U.S. forces prompt man who claimed power in Kut to flee self-declared office

Postwar Iraq

April 26, 2003|By Michael Slackman | Michael Slackman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

KUT, Iraq - Said Abbas sat in the governor's chair, signed papers as the governor, gave speeches as the governor, even had a governor's assistant who wore a smart yellow jacket with a black tie.

But the Marines had another title for him: squatter.

In postwar Iraq, every ethnic group, religious group and social group is trying to stake its claim. Abbas claimed this Tigris River city of 300,000, making it impossible for the Marines to consolidate power and get Kut running again. So yesterday, Abbas was given an ultimatum: Face arrest or leave. Not long before the Marines stormed City Hall, Abbas slipped out the back door.

For more than two weeks, this self-declared governor occupied the ornate office of the former governor. Dressed in the robes of a Shiite cleric (though he never received formal religious education), he was surrounded by the accouterments of power: shimmering crystal chandelier, gaudy white furniture and a room full of admirers willing to jump at his command.

He said he was elected, or selected, by his neighbors in the Shiite community because he is a humanitarian.

"I am a popular man," he said with a hint of a smile and not a touch of humility, about an hour before he made his escape. "I have a popular base. The good and patriotic people are in need of an influential person, especially now, so I came with them to this place."

The Marines said he was a "thug" trying to consolidate power and enrich his friends.

Whatever the truth is about the man, who is affiliated with the Iran-based Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, he was undeniably an embarrassment to the Americans, a symbol of their failure to fill a power vacuum that rose in Iraq when Saddam Hussein fell.

Abbas soaked it up, until the Marines decided they had had enough. Shortly before 6 p.m. yesterday, he decided not to fight for City Hall and left. Not long after, the Marines arrived in force, with Humvees surrounding the place, young men armed with M-16s and steely stares taking up positions as crowds of men, some astonished, some angry, others just curious, poured into the streets.

"Everyone should go home," the Marines announced in booming Arabic from speakers attached to their vehicles. "It is not a movie. A single shot and it will be a real battle here."

Abbas was gone and the United States demonstrated once again that authority can come at the end of a barrel.

But its challenges are far from over, in Kut or anywhere else in Iraq. How long can military might ensure authority when what people want is self-determination - and electricity?

"This is an American-British occupation, which is humiliating," Said Abu al Hail, 40, said as news of Abbas' departure spread. "They said they are going to liberate the people and let them govern themselves. When?"

It may well be that once America installs a civil administration in this country, all of the jockeying for power will be forgotten. But for now, there is a sense among the people that Iraq is tacking into the wind without anyone at the helm.

Michael Slackman writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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