BASRA, Iraq — The mission sounded improbable: Could a high-profile Iraqi politician draw attention to Bahrain's crackdown on its Shiite Muslim majority by sailing a cargo ship loaded with Iraqi doctors, nurses and medicine into the unfriendly waters of the small Persian Gulf kingdom?
As Ahmed Chalabi stood on the dock of this once-busy harbor, with the 4,000-ton ship to his rear and a crowd of volunteers before him, two Iraqi two coast guard boats gave the definitive answer. Sirens blazing, they started carving figure eights around the harbor, all but drowning out his remarks.
With U.S. backing, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki blocked the ship's planned launch on Friday.
First, he ordered his interior ministry to deny exit visas to the 100 or so passengers aboard the Iraqi-owned "Rukia," saying they had no clear destination. Adding insult to injury, the governor of Basra province, a member of Maliki's Dawa party, refused to raise the drawbridge that gives access to the Shatt al Arab waterway and the Persian Gulf.
On Monday, the ship remained in port, and Chalibi appeared to have abandoned the plan for now. But in the complex world of Iraqi politics, he may have scored a few points by backing the Shiite majority in Bahrain against that country's Sunni Muslim monarchy. That would be a familiar story for many in Iraq, where most people are Shiite and were once ruled by a Sunni Muslim regime headed by Saddam Hussein.
Maliki had a sound reason for blocking Chalibi's plans: if Bahrain wouldn't permit the ship to land, this would be a very dangerous mission. In fact, that had been Chalabi's plan — by denying the ship entry and forcing it to drift at sea, it would bring even more attention to Bahrain's takeover of medical services following widespread anti-government protests, a takeover that many argue effectively is denying medical care to many of the Shiite Muslim majority on the island.
The U.S. group Physicians for Human Rights last month issued a blistering condemnation of the takeover, but it continued Monday, when the government put 47 doctors and nurses on trial in a procedure closed to the media. The charges ranged from murder of patients to taking part in illegal demonstrations.
The case, which the government announced a month ago, grew out of the fact that doctors treated anti-government protesters wounded by security forces during demonstrations that wracked Bahrain in February and March.
Chalabi, an agile operator with a sharp eye for political opportunity and the financial resources to carry out his projects, is a controversial figure. Disparaged by many Americans for giving the Bush administration phony intelligence about Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction program that was used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Chalabi is also admired by many Iraqis for helping free the country from one of the world's worst dictators.
His call for Iraqis to join in a venture that would expose the widely reported human rights abuses resonated with many here.
The owner of the Tanzanian-flagged ship, Ali Razi, told McClatchy he'd never met Chalabi before but admired him as a man who "loves his country." Razi donated the use of the Rukia, which usually carries cement from Karachi, Pakistan, to Basra, because "we need to send a message to the world that the Iraqi people are ready to help people elsewhere." He put the value of the charter at $1 million, and said it didn't bother him that the vessel might be seized.
Dr. Anis al Sudani, 36, one of the 40 or so doctors who volunteered for the trip, said he thought the aid ship's mission was to spread democracy.
"The people of Bahrain are asking for their rights," the anesthesiologist at Baghdad's Neuro-surgical hospital told McClatchy. "They want to change their prime minister, who's been in his job for 40 years. They want a constitutional government. That is their right."
He added: "If you feel the taste of liberty, you will hope that all people in the world taste it. I will be happy that all countries around us live free and in a democratic state. "
Later he searched out the reporter to say he wanted to add to his statement.
"I like what the United States did for us," Sudani said. "I like what president Obama said — Bahrain should free its prisoners. But this is not enough. If the U.S. presses the Bahrain authorities, they will change their behavior."
This definitely wasn't the view of the government of Bahrain.
Prior to the ship's scheduled departure, Bahrain threatened in writing to seize the ship. If the ship sails into Bahrain waters, "it will not be allowed to leave," Chalabi said, quoting from a letter from Bahrain authorities that the Iraq government passed to him. "That's crazy," he said. "It will lead to an international incident."
The U.S. government backed Bahrain. "We have advised Chalabi not to sail without the permission of the Bahraini Government," said Aaron D. Snipe, a spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Baghdad said Friday.
Bahrain appeared to soften its stance before the scheduled launch Friday, in a statement that attacked Chalabi, though not by name.
"We deplore the fact that there are some, whose credibility has been proven? to be in question, who are now trying to take advantage of events in Bahrain to benefit personally in the international and regional media," Sheikh Abdulaziz Mubarak al Khalifa, a government spokesman, told McClatchy. "I assure you no vessel that doesn't adhere to the norms of maritime passage will be allowed to enter Bahrain."
Chalabi responded that the vessel was seaworthy, and added: "I do not take this as an attack on me."
The Rukia was short four life rafts, as well as an Internet transmission station, which was to serve the 30-35 doctors and nurses, along with 30 journalists and some 30 activist volunteers planning to travel. Those missing items arrived Monday.
Chalabi didn't flinch as the bad news arrived. "We thrive under pressure," he told McClatchy. And he refused to accept the failure to sail as anything other than a temporary setback that exposed Maliki as a person who put power over principles.
"Ordinary people make promises and they don't carry them out," he said. "We made promises, and we delivered."
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