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Shiites bring rigid piety to Iraq's south

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As for the bans on alcohol, music CDs, or general mingling of the sexes, "This is Iranian, too," says Mr. Wendy. "In the past, Basra had bars, casinos, nightclubs - it had life. Basra has really become an Iranian city. I no longer recognize it."

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Another major source of extremist mores is firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Last March, Mr. Sadr's followers disrupted a picnic held by Basra University students, during which men and women - many with their hair uncovered - played secular music and mingled freely. In the ensuing melee, Sadrists beat and robbed students, and one woman temporarily lost her eyesight. And though Sadr's office later apologized for the incident, some members remain unrepentant. "We believe we have a religious task to separate good behavior from bad," says Abu Zahara al-Mayahi, a director of Sadr's Basra office.

The militias have also harassed Basra's media. At the scene of the picnic attack, for example, Sadr's men physically assaulted and broke the equipment of cameramen trying to film the event.

Recently, the author of a newspaper article about the Sadrist movement received death threats because the newspaper accompanied the article with a photograph that showed many women with uncovered hair.

But even this type of thuggery is not the only manifestation of religious extremism in Basra today. "This is a city where if you have a birthday party for your child, you could end up dead," says one Iraqi journalist.

As drama professor Thawra Yousif Yaakub relates, her sister-in-law Salina belonged to an all-female band that performed at baby showers, birthday parties, and other festive occasions, playing before all-women audiences only. Last May, the band were unloading their equipment on the street after a gig, when a man leaped out of a car and opened fire, killing Salina and another band member.

"They died because they were women and they made music," Yaakub says.

According to Iraqi officials, nearly 1,000 people - most of them Sunni Muslims - have been killed in the city over the past three months, with 100 murdered in one week in May alone. In June, unknown assailants killed three Sunni clerics: the bullet-ridden body of one was found beside his untouched car, a clear sign that the murder was politically motivated, rather than a criminal act.

While no one is certain about the killers' identities, Basrans have their suspicions. Echoing sentiments one hears throughout the city, "I believe intelligence agents from Iran identify the victims and then hire gunmen affiliated with the religious parties," says a Sunni sheikh in Zubair, a city southwest of Basra. "Their goal is to destabilize southern Iraq."

The majority of religious party members are horrified by these assassinations. Moreover, many are sincere in their efforts to improve the squalid conditions in which many Basrans live. "We realize we have to accomplish something to benefit the people," says SCIRI spokesman Alaa Turej. "That is our responsibility to Basra."

But it may be too late. Many Basrans, tired of the increasing "Iranification" of their city and a lack of basic services, plan to vote in December for secular candidates, such as those headed by former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Failing an electoral upset, these critics of the religious parties hope time will end their reign.

"I'm confident these parties will vanish once our economy picks up and the true nature of Basra reasserts itself," adds Samir, the newspaper editor. "Until then, I will continue to watch my words regarding these people."