Shiites bring rigid piety to Iraq's south

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

In Basra these days, it's not uncommon to see armed men from Shiite religious groups standing at the gates of Basra University, scrutinizing female students to make sure their dresses are the right length and their makeup properly modest.

Any woman violating their standards of Muslim dignity, relates Henan, a psychology student, is ordered home. "These religious militiamen tell us how to dress, and prevent us from listening to music in public or interacting with male students," she says. "It makes me burn inside."

Henan is not the only Basran furious at the extremist Shiite Muslims who now dominate this southern Iraqi port city bordering Iran. Especially among the middle and intellectual classes, an increasing drumbeat of resentment is rising about what many see as a distortion of Basra's traditionally easygoing, tolerant attitudes toward life.

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"No alcohol, no music CDs, woman forced to wear hijab, people murdered in the streets - this is not the city I remember," says Samir, an editor of one of Basra's largest newspapers. (His name, and others, have been changed for security reasons.) "In the past, Basra revolted against attempts to make it too Islamic."

One woman living in Basra says, "Before, we had Saddam; now we have religious parties and militias. To them, a woman's smile is a crime."

With the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, Shiite organizations, many with close associations with Iran, seized political control of the south. The Jan. 30 elections solidified their power, especially in Basra, where 35 out of the 41 members of the province's Governing Council (GC) belong to such groups as Dawa Islamiyya or the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). And despite some minor doctrinal differences, their vision of this city is clear.

"Today, our society is changing, becoming more religious," says provincial governor Mohammad al-Waali, who belongs to the Fadhallah (Virtue) Party. "We must reflect that Basra is becoming a purely Islamic city."

Sunnis, in particular, are unhappy with this fledgling Shiite theocracy. "After the fall of Saddam, we expected a degree of political oppression from the Shiite majority," says Jamal Khazaal, director of the Basra headquarters of the Islamic Religious Party, a predominantly Sunni group. "But in many ways, this is more difficult than we anticipated."

Others contend that devotion to extreme Islam does not itself solve Basra's problems. "These people held power for two years, and what did they accomplish?" says Samir. "Basra is in shambles, we are without electricity, fresh water, and security. They didn't even give us hope."

Others criticize GC members for, among other things, a lack of education (some have not graduated from secondary school), questionable business dealings (one member oversaw a multimillion-dollar road construction project that never materialized), and ties to Iran (a Ministry of Defense official in Basra claims that "50 percent" of the GC have ties to the Islamic Republic).

"We have over 70 political parties, many without any constituents," says one academic. "Where do they get their funding? And whose interests do they serve - Basra's or Tehran's?"

If Iran casts a political shadow over Basra, its influence on the city's social life is even greater. Over the past year, for example, many women changed their hijab style from the traditional Iraqi buknuk, or tight-fitting cowl, to the looser Iranian-style scarf. "But of course, the whole idea of compulsory hijab is Iranian," says Salaam Wendy, a Basran who recently returned to the city after living overseas for 20 years. "In the 1960s and 70s, you rarely saw women in Basra covered."

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."

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."

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