Shiite theocracy takes hold in Iraqi oil city

Posted in Iraq | 08-Jul-05 | Author: Edward Wong| Source: International Herald Tribune

This music store in Basra was bombed, and the owners suspect that the crime was committed by extremists who consider music to be un-Islamic.
BASRA, Iraq The loudest sounds from musicians' row these days come from explosions.

Ahmed Ali walked through a shop that had sold musical instruments before it was gutted by a bombing a week earlier, the latest in a series of mysterious attacks in this narrow alley in the past six months, he said. The men here, just a block from the Ministry of Religious Affairs, sell instruments by day and perform at weddings in the evening.

"They say it's forbidden by Islam," Ali, 18, said as he went back to his own shop, its shelves stocked with drums. "We're afraid of everything. I'm afraid of it all. I'm afraid even when I'm talking to you."

The once-libertine oil port of Basra, 560 kilometers, or 350 miles, south of the capital and far from the insurgency raging in much of Iraq, is steadily being transformed into a mini-theocracy under Shiite rule.

There is perhaps no better indication of the possible flash points in a Shiite-dominated Iraq, because the political parties that hold sway here also wield significant influence in the central government in Baghdad and are backed by the country's top clerics.

Efforts to impose strict Shiite religious rule across Iraq would almost certainly spur resistance from Sunni Arabs and the more secular Kurds. But here in Basra, the changes have accelerated since the January elections, which enabled religious parties to put more radical politicians into office.

Small parties with names like God's Vengeance and Master of Martyrs have emerged. They work under the umbrella of more established Shiite groups, but many Iraqis suspect them of being agents of the Iranian government. One of the leading parties was formed in Iran by an Iraqi cleric living in exile during the reign of Saddam Hussein.

The growing ties with Iran are evident. Posters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 Iranian revolution, are plastered along streets and even at the provincial government center.

The Iranian government opened a polling station downtown for Iranian expatriates during elections in their home country in June. The governor also talks eagerly of buying electricity from Iran, given that the U.S.-led effort has failed to provide enough of it.

"The political situation is very confused and very mixed up," said Saleh Najim, dean of the engineering college at Basra University. "Most of the radical Islamic parties are concentrated in Basra. The people feel very upset about these parties. They are wasting our time."

Basra is not yet entirely in the grip of fundamentalism - pirated copies of American movies like "Showgirls" and "Striptease" can still be bought in the market. But conservative rule has affected daily life. Thursday and Friday have been designated the official weekend, rather than Friday and Saturday as in Baghdad, because Saturday is the Jewish day of rest.

The biggest issue for Iraqis is security, and here the line between the order kept by the local government and the one imposed by shadowy religious militias loyal to the governing parties is blurred. Posters of clerics, including Moktada al-Sadr, who ignited two uprisings against U.S. forces, adorn concrete barriers at police checkpoints. Leaders of the militias say their fighters now make up a large part of the uniformed security forces.

There is an upside. Basra, though strewn with trash and impoverished, is much safer than Baghdad and other cities beset by the Sunni-led insurgency. The riverfront walkway known as the Corniche buzzes with life at night. Even foreigners can openly walk the streets.

But insecurity is a constant for many Iraqis who do not conform to a strict interpretation of Shiite Islam. In the music bazaar, a tattered warning sign appears on a closed instrument shop owned by a famous musician known as Kareem Trumpet. The sign denounces as "soldiers of Satan" the city's "whorehouses and dealers in porn DVDs and gambling shops and music stores."

The bazaar is just blocks away from a strip where sidewalk alcohol vendors once thrived, before armed vigilantes and police officers drove them away.

At least three former officials of the Sunni-dominated Baath Party were gunned down in separate incidents, and a Sunni Arab cleric was kidnapped near his mosque and shot dead. Days later a Shiite cleric was fatally shot while going home. Few women walk around without a head scarf and full-length black robe. A young woman who gave her name as Layla said she could wear jeans without a robe a year ago. But seven months ago, as she strode from her house, a group of men came up to her and warned her that she was improperly dressed. She says she no longer goes out in public without a robe.

Religious Shiites do not have to legally enshrine Shariah, Islam's version of divine law, to exercise their will. Enforcement of Islamic practices is done on the streets, in the shadows.

"We're trying to do it culturally, rather than impose it by law," said Furat al-Shara, a representative for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite political party that holds powerful positions in the national government.

Sheik Abdul Sattar al-Bahadli, a top official in the Sadr movement prominent in the National Assembly, summed up the conservative view: "If Shariah exists everywhere in the world, in China, Korea or Japan, for example, and not just in Iraq, everyone will be happy."

Politicians loyal to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and to Ayatollah Muhammad Yacoubi, a radical cleric close to the Sadr movement, dominate the 41-seat Basra provincial council. The governor, Muhammad al-Waeli, belongs to the ayatollah's party.

A faded poster of Yacoubi with a white beard appears on a gate outside Waeli's fortified office, ordering Iraqis not to buy or sell American, British or French cigarettes. Beside it hangs a poster of Khomeini with even harsher words: "All the problems of Islam stem from colonialism and the Great Powers."

Inside, Waeli said in an interview that Iraqi officials were negotiating to buy electricity from Iran to alleviate an electricity shortage and chronic blackouts.

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, praised that proposal on a visit to Basra in June.

Arriving in a convoy from Iran, he said Iraq, particularly the south, could benefit from closer ties to its Shiite neighbor. "The great Islamic Republic has a very formidable government," he said at a news conference. "It can be very useful to us, and it has a very honorable attitude toward Iraq."

But even in the south, many people still distrust Iran and political parties linked to it. Nearly one million people died in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, which started in 1980 over control of the Shatt al-Arab, the waterway here that flows into the Gulf. If the residents of this region begin to feel that Iran is exerting too much influence, they could turn against the governing Shiite parties.

Shamkhi Khallawi, 53, doesn't expect much help from any political party. "Everybody works for their own benefit," the fisherman said in Fao, southeast of Basra. "The politicians work for themselves, not for the people."