First Published: 2005-02-11

Salman Pak, Iraq's new lawless hotspot

Insurgents step up series of grisly attacks against Iraq’s security forces in lawless Salman Pak.


Middle East Online

By Jean-Marc Mojon - BAGHDAD

Salman Pak could pose a more serious challenge to Iraqi forces

Salman Pak, a town southeast of Baghdad where insurgents launched a spectacular onslaught against police Thursday, has become Iraq's new hotspot where a motley army of Wahhabists, Saddamists and criminals are imposing their bloody rule.

Less than two weeks after the country's historic elections were hailed as a blow to the insurgency, a series of grisly attacks in the area has turned the spotlight back on the kind of violence that dominated the pre-vote period.

Insurgents carry out almost daily car bomb and suicide attacks against the country's security forces, but on Thursday gunmen launched a daring assault on the Salman Pak police station with rifles, rockets and mortars.

US gunships had to be called in to dislodge the rebels and the hours-long battle left at least 10 policemen dead and 75 wounded, local police said.

The government claimed that 20 attackers were also killed in the fighting.

Rebels launched a similar all-out assault on the main police station in Fallujah a year ago, before the city later became the main insurgent hub in the country.

Salman Pak is a town by the Tigris river which commands access from the capital to one of the two main roads leading to southern Iraq, including the country's second city of Basra.

According to witnesses and residents, rebels scan the flow of traffic leaving Baghdad and radio in to their accomplices further down the road the description of any car or convoy representing an interesting target.

Last month, rebels killed finance ministry employees and the representative of top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Salman Pak.

Salman Pak means Salman "the Pure" in Farsi, in reference to one of the prophet Mohammed's followers, who became the first Persian to convert to Islam.

In addition to political targets for carjacking, killing or kidnapping, the main road conveying merchandise between the country's two biggest cities is a goldmine for bandits.

The bodies of more than 20 truck drivers and four Iraqi police and soldiers were found in the same region, police said Thursday. Their convoy had been attacked at least two days earlier, but no one had dared touch them.

The convoy had been taking sugar to Baghdad for food warehouses which distribute monthly rations. They were attacked on the road from Salman Pak to Suwairah, further south.

The area is home to several Sunni Muslim tribes who follow the radical Wahhabi brand of Islam and gradually imposed their rule of terror.

Pro-Saddam slogans can still be seen scrawled on banners and walls along the road, which is littered with the burnt-out carcasses of cars attacked by the insurgents.

"On the day after the January 30, they stopped the traffic to see if any of the people had blue fingers," said a resident of a nearby village on condition of anonymity, in reference to the ink tag proving participation in the polls.

"I know that at least ten people had their finger cut off," he said.

Families who own several of the large farms flanking the river in the Suwairah area are related to Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, Saddam Hussein's fugitive former right-hand man, suspected of playing a role in organising the post-war resistance of former regime elements.

Four months ago, police in the city of Kut prepared a massive raid, but the information was leaked and the commandos were met with tough resistance, sparking battles which left dozens dead.

The deadly stretch of road is off-limits to any foreigner as rebels can cut it at any time to snatch their prey.

This makes any travel south of the capital extremely perilous as the only other southbound road passes through lawless towns such Mahmudiyah and Latifiyah, in an area which has been dubbed the "triangle of death".

In November 2004, US, British and Iraqi troops launched "Operation Plymouth Rock", a massive push to purge the area of wanted rebels. Residents say they have just moved east to the Salman Pak region.

Salman Pak itself is a larger city than Latifiyah and could pose a more serious challenge to Iraqi forces.

According to the head of Iraqi intelligence, General Mohammed Abdallah Shahwani, Salman Pak is "a guerrillas' fiefdom". "To reclaim the city would take a real battle," he said.


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