Of all the acts of violence left in the wake of the Sadr movement, one that seems to have been forgotten is its attack upon the town of Qawliya in Qadisiyah province. In March 2004, Mahdi Army fighters came to the village and leveled it. Qawliya was inhabited by gypsies, which the Sadr Trend had been criticizing since the time of Moqtada al-Sadr’s father Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr. It was quite common for Iraqis to vilify the community, and associate it with crime and prostitution. After the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein, the Sadrists attacked several gypsy villages, with Qawliya being its most notorious act.
The aftermath of the Mahdi Army attack upon Qawliya, March 2004 (Washington Post)
Qawliya was a small gypsy town near Diwaniya, which was destroyed in March 2004. It had a seedy history, being known for prostitution and weapons smuggling. On March 12, 2004, it was wiped out by members of the Mahdi Army. A spokesman for the Sadr office in Diwaniya said that for months it had been working to get the gypsies to end what he called their sinful and criminal behavior with no results. Then one day a father came to the Sadr office looking for his 12-year old daughter who he said had been taken to Qawliya against her will. When Sadrists went to the town, there was a confrontation, with one of its members being killed. The spokesman said they left afterwards, and it was the neighbors who ended up destroying the village. The altercation seems to be agreed upon by other sources, but the rest of the story by the Sadrists is disputed. According to Larry Diamond, who was working with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) at the time on democracy promotion, the Mahdi Army went to Qawliya trying to arrest a woman on moral charges on instructions from one of Sadr’s sharia courts. There was a showdown with local police and villagers, which led to shots being fired, and a militiaman being killed. The Washington Post reported that the Sadrists came back with more than 100 men, armed with heavy weapons including mortars and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), which they used to attack the village. They then burned it down, and used a bulldozer to knock down houses. Most of the 1,000 residents were warned beforehand, and were able to flee. The neighbors then came in and looted the remains. Afterward, 18 villagers were arrested at a Mahdi Army checkpoint, and held for ten days in one of their jails, and tortured. They were then transferred to another Sadrist prison in Najaf, before they were given to local police, and eventually ended up at the CPA offices in that city. Many of the residents ended up being internally displaced persons in Karbala, Najaf, and Hillah. An investigation by the Coalition Authority later found that the Sadrists attacked Qawliya to show its power in Qadisiyah. It was an easy target as well, because gypsies had long been vilified in Iraqi society, so the locals and the government would not strenuously object to the Mahdi Army’s actions.
That proved true as no one was ever punished for the crime. The police in Diwaniya never responded, investigated or arrested anyone for the attack. The Mahdi Army claimed that they were not responsible. The police chief and his deputy in Diwaniya were eventually removed as a result, probably under American pressure, but that was it. Some members of the CPA were outraged by the events in Qawliya, but because it lacked a policy on how to handle Moqtada al-Sadr it did nothing about it.
Qawliya was just the most notorious example of a general trend towards persecuting gypsies in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. Immediately after the overthrow of the government, people began accusing the community of being supporters of Saddam. Religious groups singled them out for selling alcohol and running prostitution rings. In a similar situation to Qawliya, gypsies in the town of Kamalia were driven out by armed men, probably Sadrists, as the Trend then appropriated their houses, and began selling them off. After Qawliya, the Mahdi Army also attacked gypsies in Abu Ghraib and Hillah. The Sadrists were partly inspired by the writings of Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, Moqtada’s father who gave a number of sermons calling on gypsies to change their ways. The Mahdi Army attacks post-2003 were also a way to assert itself in southern Iraq. The fact that nothing was ever done about Qawliya egged on the Mahdi Army to further acts of violence, and was a prelude to its challenging the Coalition in their uprisings of 2004. It pointed to the growing anarchy that Iraq was falling into at that time, and how minorities were major victims.
Bahadur, Gaiutra, “In now-religious Iraq, no tolerance for Gypsies,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/6/05
Diamond, Larry, Squandered Victory, The American Occupation And The Bungled Effort To Bring Democracy To Iraq, New York: Times Books, 2005
- “What Went Wrong in Iraq,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2004
Ricks, Thomas, Fiasco, New York: Penguin Press, 2006
Shadid, Anthony, “In a Gypsy Village’s Fate, An Image of Iraq’s Future,” Washington Post, 4/3/04