'Shiite Taliban' rises as British depart Basra

Many in the Iraqi port city say social freedoms are eroding as radical militias gain power.

The billboard in Umm al-Broom Square was meant to advertise a cellphone service. Instead, it has become a message to those who dare to resist the rising tide of fundamentalist Islam in Iraq's second largest city.

The female model's face is now covered with black paint. Graffiti scrawled below reads, "No! No to unveiled women."

That message joins the chorus of ultraconservative voices and radical militias that are transforming this once liberal port city that boasted some of Iraq's most lively nightclubs into a bastion for hard-line Shiite Islamists since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Now, as the British prepare to exit Basra Province altogether after pulling out from this provincial capital last week, they leave behind what has been described by many here as an emerging "Shiite Taliban state," a reference to Sunni extremists in Afghanistan.

And with the British gone, many say, they leave open the possibility that Iran could extend its influence within the mosques, religious schools, and militant party headquarters. Over the past four years, Basra has undergone its own Islamic revolution of sorts.

Posters of the leader of Iran's 1979 social and religious revolt, Ayatollah Khomeini, who at the time imposed similar limits on his society, are plastered everywhere in Basra.

"There is pressure from parties backed by Iran to sideline liberal, secular, and leftist forces," says a labor union leader and a former communist, who, like most people interviewed for this story, did not want to be named for fear of retaliation. "Personal freedoms are being squashed … the fabric of Iraqi society has been ruined."

Public parties are banned. Selling musical CDs is forbidden in shops. Those who sell or consume alcohol face recrimination, even death. Artists and performers are severely restricted and even labeled as heretics. A famous city landmark, a replica of the Lion of Babylon statue that stood here for decades was blown up by militants in July. It was considered idolatrous, according to the strict interpretation of Islam.

Signs ordering women to cover up appear throughout the city. One woman, an Iraqi female activist from Basra, says the notices even threaten death. One banner, she says, said unveiled women could be murdered and no one could remove their bodies from the street.

Religious conservatism grows throughout Iraq

Although Basra is mostly Shiite, it has long prided itself on being home to a vibrant mix of Sunnis, Christians of all sects, and ancient communities like the Sabean Mandaeans.

But after Mr. Hussein's regime fell, the sway of radical Islamic militias, such as Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, began growing in the city, as happened in the rest of the country.

"Ultimately, what we will see in Iraq is a conservative society, whether in the Shiite or Sunni areas. Sunnis, too, are going through a very difficult process that will result in the rise of conservatism and fundamentalism," says Ahmed Moussalli, a lecturer and expert on Islamic movements at the American University in Beirut. From the perspective of many, he says, "Iraq and other places [in the Arab world] are under attack ... by the West and there is a lot of return to religion in order to empower themselves to fight the 'infidels.' "

This perceived onslaught on Islamic lands and values by the West, which is for many reminiscent of the Crusades more than 1,000 years ago, combined with the Islamic Revolution in Iran has turned the typically quietist and introverted Shiite religious tradition heads over heels, explains Mr. Moussalli.

Most Shiites in Iraq do not particularly espouse the Iranian model under which the clerical establishment rules on behalf of Imam Mahdi, who is believed to be in a state of occultation, and that paves the way for the return of this Messiah-like figure as a savior.

The idea of a clerical state is still very controversial among Shiites. But Iran has been able to forge ties with Shiite forces across the Iraqi spectrum by tapping into a range of aspirations and sentiments. With powerful allies, such as the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, once based in Iran, it is bolstering Islamist Shiite control in Iraq, while elements of the Mahdi Army are fighting the so-called Western intruders and "enemies of the faith."

A leader in Mr. Sadr's movement in Basra, who gave his name as Abu Zahra, says that he and many of his partisans firmly believe that the US and its allies invaded Iraq to fight Imam Mahdi and prevent his reemergence.

He says the Mahdi Army is against violence in propagating what they consider Islamic behavior, but that it's difficult to rein in all members. "Some are overzealous sometimes and come up with their own interpretations, but Sayyed Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr was clear: Unveiled women must be shunned," he says, referring to Sadr's late father and the movement's spiritual leader. "We are a Muslim majority and we want to apply Islamic law."

Aside from Sadrists, many people argue that this is what an increasingly religious population wants, adding that the trend began in the south long before Hussein was toppled. "Until about a year ago, we had music, but we stopped after more and more customers told us to turn it off," says a manager at one restaurant, an AK-47 by his side. "Society has become more conservative."

"There is a certain desire for sanctity on the street that we can't touch," says Mahdi al-Tamimi, a local official with the Ministry of Human Rights.

But several people explain that the Islamist parties that dominate the provincial council, many of which maintain close ties to Shiite Iran, are doing little to stop the tide of hard-line Islamic values because it suits their own long-term agendas of establishing an Islamic state in Iraq.

"There are those trying to apply Khomeini's experiment in Iraq although his fatwas [edicts] on music failed in Iran," says Ahmed Mukhtar, a renowned oud player and a professor of music at the University of London who hailed originally from southern Iraq. He says there is nothing in Islam that bans music, for instance, and that Shiites are even more tolerant in this respect than their Sunni counterparts.

An official with a party close to Iran says his party is simply trying to spread Islamic values through education and reason. "We reject violence. We just educate people, and it's ultimately up to them to decide if they want to declare an Islamic state," says Qassim Muhammad who is with the Sayyed al-Shuhada Movement.

Social freedoms are eroding

But the pressure on women to cover up, even if they are not Muslim, is tremendous, says the female Iraqi activist. Both men and women must dress conservatively, and males are segregated from families in restaurants, similar to the public segregation in conservative countries such as Saudi Arabia.

"There is nothing to stop these people; they are getting stronger in preventing women from fulfilling their role in society," says the activist.

Now, all women holding public-sector jobs must be veiled, and female students at universities regularly receive written notices warning them to cover up and dress modestly, she says. Off-campus picnics and gatherings by Basra University students have been banned since March 2005, when militiamen viciously beat up a group of mixed-gender picnickers.

A student at the College of Fine Arts recounted how militiamen led by a turbaned cleric recently descended on their campus threatening to "finish off the dean with two bullets in the head" if the department was not shut down. "They called us immoral gypsies," he says.

Journalists and writers, too, say they have to think twice before publishing anything critical. "You have to write in codes and anything about the militias and the links of Islamist parties to Iran are red lines that must not be crossed," says one newspaper editor.

Three journalists were killed here in 2005: US journalist Steven Vincent, who reported from Basra for the Monitor; Iraqi reporter for the New York Times, Fakher Haidar; and the Basra correspondent for US-funded Al-Hurra Television, Abdul-Hussein Khazaal.

Many people, including the newspaper editor, accuse the Mahdi Army of being the No. 1 and most-brutal enforcer of what they deem Islamic moral practices.

"We have a stereo and speakers but we can't play music – orders of the Mahdi Army," says a waiter at a restaurant in the middle-class Jazayer neighborhood. The same rules apply at several nearby establishments.

A sectarian undercurrent

Christians here still practice their faith in their churches in Basra, and those spoken to for this article have not been subjected to direct threats, as have those in Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul. But many have opted to voluntarily leave an increasingly hostile environment.

One Christian woman in Basra says that she has witnessed an exodus of families from traditionally Christian areas like Braiha, Maaqal, and Jumhouriyah over the past two years.

Sunnis in Basra have not been as fortunate. Many have been killed or forcefully pushed out from inside the city as part of the sectarian war that has swept the whole country. Most are now concentrated in areas south of Basra.

A warning given to Sunnis in the city reads, "You have 10 days to leave our blessed land in southern Iraq and you have been forewarned."

Given the absence of an effective and trusted police force, most people now rely on their tribes and clans to protect them.

"Many of my colleagues have tacked their tribal affiliation at the end of their name. This is how low we have sunk. Educated people have to rely on their family and clan to protect them," says a doctor bitterly.

Amid this crackdown, however, there is some dissent. The London-based Mr. Mukhtar is helping a renowned local band of traditional musicians to hold concerts outside Iraq. "They practice secretly at a depot in an industrial area in Basra, and their female vocalist must travel separately and incognito when they go out," he says.

He is also supporting a Basra-based maker of ouds, a traditional Arab string instrument, who is considered to be the best in the world. "We smuggle them to Dubai and then we ship them to London," he says.

And in June, Abdul-Aziz al-Dahr, a local painter, opened the city's only art gallery. "We can't just sit in the dark; we must light a candle," he says.

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