BASRA, Iraq (AP) Inam al-Zubaidi, an 18-year-old female student, wears a headscarf to avoid harassment by fanatical religious groups that have emerged in recent months.
Mustafa al-Iqabi sports a beard and tries to get home by 10 p.m. to avoid religious squads who cruise the streets at night and take the law into their own hands.
Many residents of Iraq’s second largest city, including some who practice the Muslim faith, worry that these vigilante groups want to impose an Islamic state on Basra similar to Iran.
Despite a marked improvement in the security situation from only a couple of months ago thanks to the efforts of a revamped police force many people here fear for the future.
Billboards and murals depicting turbaned and black-robed religious leaders serve as a reminder that the religious establishment is playing a major role in this already conservative city.
Signs of change are everywhere. With the Shiite clergy wielding vast influence in national politics, many Iraqis believe what’s happening here could set a pattern elsewhere in the country.
Liquor stores on the once vibrant al-Watan Street are shuttered and cement walls block their entrance following the killings of at least three alcohol vendors. The One Thousand and One Nights nightclub, one of only two allowed by Saddam Hussein after he closed bars and clubs in late 1990s, lies in rubble. Gangs ransacked it after killing its Egyptian guard a few months ago.
Other major acts of violence has included the murder of the three Christian liquor vendors, the killings of former regime loyalists, and the ransom kidnapping of several rich Basra residents.
Many people blame the violence on some of the 150 small political and religious groups that have sprung up in this city of 2 million.
One religious figure, Sheik Abdul-Sattar al-Bahadli, brushed aside the criticism. Al-Bahadli is the Basra representative of hardline Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr.
“When you have a set of rules in a house and the child breaks them, you get angry,” al-Bahadli said. “Then you try to explain to him and tell him it was wrong what he did. All I can say is, give us a chance and watch us from a distance. Just don’t encroach on Iraq’s Islamic identity.”
However, actions attributed to religious vigilantes have gone beyond lectures.
Most worrisome have been the kidnappings and sometime murder of women whose actions have been deemed un-Islamic. A few weeks ago, local newspapers reported the shooting death of a young woman who worked in a video store which extremists brand as pornographic.
Residents have different versions on the death of a female medical student who was kidnapped and raped several months ago. Some say that her parents killed her for the shame her rape brought on the family. Others say she committed suicide.
Dye has been thrown at women who did not wear the hijab, or the Islamic veil. Even many Christian women began wearing the hijab for fear of attracting kidnappers.
Mayada al-Azawi, 19, refuses to wear a headscarf. Her family has hired a driver to take her to and from university every day. But the fact that most girls have begun covering their heads to avoid kidnappings makes her defiance even more difficult, she said.
“Girls are afraid to walk in the streets because of the kidnappings. Men harass us and strangers come up and demand that we wear the hijab,” said al-Azawi, wearing a black leather jacket over a long tight skirt.
Al-Zubaidi, who began wearing the scarf a week ago, said she will take it off as soon as the situation stabilizes.
“The situation is not normal and they make it very difficult for those who don’t wear the hijab,” she said.
Al-Zubaidi said women had been told by religious male students that they will not be allowed into classrooms if they wear short or tight skirts. Also, music is not allowed in the university canteen.
“We’re afraid to play the music loud in our cars,” complained Haidar al-Khalidi, a 22-year-old student.
It is not only the secular young who are complaining.
Gov. Wa’el Abdul-Latif said it is difficult to crack down on the vigilante groups some of which operate under the guise of Islamic movements because they do not need government permits to open offices.
“These groups are violating the citizen’s human rights,” said Abdul-Latif. He said they routinely summon people to their offices and interrogate them for a variety of reasons.
Gen. Ali al-Rubaiei, deputy governor for security, said the reorganization of the police force in Basra had helped reduce much of the security problems. The reorganization included the establishment of an active police intelligence and anti-crime units, similar to SWAT teams, that raid organized crime hideouts.
“Their impact has been impressive on reducing crimes such as smuggling, kidnapping and murders,” said al-Rubaei. He said criminal incidents had fallen to two a week, compared to twice a day a couple of months ago.
“We still lack education and understanding of freedom. We are like a bird who has been set free,” he said. “To some people everything is religiously allowed while to others everything is religiously forbidden.”