- The Washington Times - Monday, August 15, 2005

ZUBAYR, Iraq — Every couple of weeks a Sunni turns up dead in the town of Zubayr.

The pattern is the same. One day, someone in a police uniform drives up and abducts the victim and a few days later the body is found in the river near a bridge on the northeastern side of town, toward Basra in southern Iraq.

In some cases, the victim’s name shows up on police prison rolls as having been arrested, suggesting some level of police involvement in the killings, said Maj. Freddie Grounds, 35, commander of the Royal Anglian Regiment’s B Company.

One of the recent cases was a teacher at Basra University who six months ago switched from being a Shi’ite to a Sunni Muslim. At the time, he was arrested and beaten up but let go. Four weeks ago he was found dead in the river.

“I think the [killings] happen more regularly in Basra,” said Maj. Grounds, whose company oversees Zubayr, a town of nearly 500,000 that is contiguous to Basra. “When I arrived three months ago there were regular reports of people disappearing in a puff of smoke.”

The killings bear the hallmarks of a political nightmare for Baghdad and Washington — Shi’ite-on-Sunni ethnic violence in a part of the country deemed otherwise stable.

U.S. military officials believe the Sunni-led insurgency in central Iraq is aimed not just at ousting coalition forces but also at sparking a civil war. Shi’ite leaders, particularly Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, have thus far refused to take the bait.

Despite the demographics of the violence in Zubayr, British military officials say the situation is overblown.

“Any time a Sunni turns up dead there is a danger of sticking a label on it and calling it ‘ethnic violence,’” said Capt. Will James, spokesman for the British-led Multinational Division based in Basra. “There are clearly undertones of de-Ba’athification,” he said, but “I don’t think they are being radicalized to the extent everyone makes out.”

Capt. James said the killings have actually decreased in Basra province since the end of the war.

“When I was here two years ago, there were dead people turning up four or five times a morning. … That was all revenge killing,” he said.

American freelance journalist Steven Vincent was killed in Basra with similar tactics recently. His female Iraqi interpreter was seriously wounded in the attack. Mr. Vincent wrote articles and kept a Web log that harshly criticized the corruption he saw in Basra in the government and the tribal system.

Maj. Grounds said 24 percent of Zubayr’s population is Sunni, but just five of the 900 police officers are Sunni. The rest are Shi’ite.

A local Sunni political party has provided Maj. Grounds with a list of 80 persons it wants as police officers. The list is evenly split between Shi’ites and Sunnis.

“Engineer Tariq,” a Sunni member of Zubayr’s city council — one of the first democratically elected councils in the country — adopted a diplomatic tone when asked about the violence in an interview at City Hall.

“If I am to speak as a Sunni, it would have to be out of this building,” he said.

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