Additionally Abu Layth’s farm and other neighbouring farms are under threat from elsewhere too: located near Karbala’s airport, they are supposed to be being bulldozed soon because Iraq’s Ministry of Transport wants to build in this area. After protesting, the farmers were given until the end of the current season to clear their produce out and move.
Abu Layth believes this is yet another example of how the religious committees are able to succeed where the smaller landholders cannot. This would never happen to them, Abu Layth complains, they would be getting preferential treatment from the local authorities. “They have money and influence,” he notes. “After this move, small farmers will no longer have a role to play in this market.”
These kinds of fears are not limited to Karbala’s farming community either. Proprietors running buses and other transport around the city are also concerned about the religious committees’ fleet of vehicles.
“They are able to transport citizens at lower prices because they own more vehicles,” explains Ali Ibrahim, the owner of a bus, who drives passengers between the cities of Karbala and nearby Najaf. “This definitely affects my work and that of others like me because passengers will want to travel for less.”
The religious committees themselves don’t believe that people like Abu Layth or Ali Ibrahim have anything to fear from them.
“The aim of the agricultural projects – and even some of the other projects – is to be able to cover the shrines’ needs for food,” Saleh al-Mahdi, the engineer who heads the Imam Hussein shrine’s agricultural committee. “We provide hundreds of meals to visitors every day and we’re nowhere near self sufficient yet. So we’re still growing our production.”