It was the clearest sign yet that what’s developing in southern Iraq is not the open, free and democratic society promised by the U.S.-led coalition occupying Iraq. The police officer at a roadblock ordered a traveler to cover her hair if she expected to continue her journey.
“This is an Islamic country and you must respect our feelings,” said the officer in the pale blue uniform supplied by the occupying coalition.
What? You mean she doesn’t have a human right not to cover her hair? But I thought that the hijab in France was a human rights issue!
Welcome to the Islamic state of southern Iraq where almost every public building is adorned with murals and posters of the three prominent Shiite Muslim clerics “martyred” in the chaos of today’s Iraq or under the rule of Saddam Hussein.
It is the sons, brothers and followers of these three men who -with the backing of neighboring Iran -are shaping the Shiite politics in the south. Here, secular ideas are not tolerated, alcohol sellers and video shop owners risk their lives, clubs and restaurants are closed for playing music, and women fearing for their lives hide behind veils.
While the world’s attention has been focused on the bickering over whether the country’s interim constitution should make Islam “a source” or “the source” of legislation and over the form of federation best suited for Iraq, these hardline Islamic forces are quietly putting down roots and building their power base.
Many Basra residents say that the Shiite clerics who rule Iran are behind much of the religious-vigilante violence taking place in this city of 2 million and that the Islamic Republic is determined to have an influential role here.
“Basra is the center of culture and science,” said Mustafa, a 26-year-old businessman. “Most of the religious parties are mercenaries who lived in Iran …. They want to impose their ideas on us. They want their word to be the law. We are afraid of them.”
Many in Basra fear that by the time elections are held next year and a constitution is in place, it will be too difficult to eliminate these forces, which will be fully entrenched.
There is not yet talk of a Shia state within a federated Iraq, but Basra and the surrounding four provinces offer some clues of what such a state would look like.
Things have changed since the days before the 1991 Gulf War when Basra was a favored weekend destination for Kuwaitis, whose country bans alcohol and who made the three-hour drive across the border to live it up in the city’s bars and nightclubs.
Although alcohol is not strictly illegal, all the bars and liquor shops have now closed. Many were shut by the now ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein after the 1990-91 Gulf War to appease the Muslim faithful. Others have been bombed by Islamic vigilantes more recently, and owners of other shops shut down out of fear.
At least three vendors of alcohol have been killed in recent months. It’s still possible to buy booze, but it’s a hush-hush affair. A bottle of Johnny Walker Scotch goes for up to $50, so most consumers opt for the $20 harsher whiskey brewed in the region.
Women have been especially affected by the changes in Basra. They are hardly seen in the streets -almost never at night -and when they do go out they wear the hijab, or veil. Even some Christians follow this practice, though the law doesn’t mandate such Islamic dress, as it does in Iran .
“The situation of women used to be bad under Saddam, but it’s worse now,” said Ahood al-Fadhly, a women’s rights activist. “Now, they can’t even come into the street the way they want to dress.”
Some Basra residents complain that Britain, whose troops occupy Basra, is turning a blind eye while the religious establishment usurps the running of the city through intimidation and threats against secular residents.
Explaining why the British are loath to intervene, Maj. David King, a British spokesman, says: “We are not here to dictate our way of life,” but merely “to provide a basic foundation to get Iraqis back on their feet.”
Analyst Gareth Stansfield, of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, isn’t surprised at the Iranian role. Basra is just 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Iranian border, and Stansfield sees no way that the British, with their 8,220 soldiers, could block Iranian influence.
“Basra is in Iran ‘s backyard,” he said in a telephone interview. “To suggest that Iran wouldn’t get involved is ludicrous.”
The U.S.-led coalition also is already engaged in a guerrilla war farther north, in the “Sunni Triangle,” and needs the Shiites -who make up 60% of Iraq’s people -as allies, and not as adversaries.
The drive south from Baghdad to Basra, Iraq’s second largest city, shows how southern Iraq is changing. Villages along the road are dominated by images of Imam Ali, a revered Shiite saint, and the black and green flags of Islam fly over mud houses.
In small towns and cities -where politics is more defined -Imam Ali’s images give way to murals and posters of Ayatollahs Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, founder of the Islamic Dawa Party, Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, and Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr -whose hardline followers are now led by his young son, Muqtada al-Sadr, who is based in the holy Shiite city of Najaf.
Ayatollah al-Hakim, who was killed in an explosion last summer in Najaf, had his headquarters in Iran until the U.S.-British forces ousted Saddam, and his brother Abdel Aziz al-Hakim is a member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council.
Al-Hakim’s close ties with Iran have not dented U.S. support for him. Nor have they stopped U.S. President George W. Bush from endorsing him as a moderate.
SCIRI’s presence is obvious in Basra, from the Iranian-backed al-Nakheel TV station and -more importantly -the forcing of the police intelligence unit to recruit more than 150 men from the Badr Organization, the SCIRI militant wing that is trained and financed by Iran .
But beyond that, SCIRI does not have much popular support in Basra. Even though the Dawa party enjoys more support, it is less visible in public.
In addition to the three main factions, there are more than 150 small groups that officials call organized crime mobs that have been terrorizing Basra since Saddam’s fall.
Life in Basra today gives little hope for secular Muslims who were looking forward to the open society that U.S. and British officials promised when their forces invaded Iraq last year. Another fear is that the interim constitution signed in early March leaves it open for individual provinces to determine whatever laws they want, raising fears of a separate clerical-dominated Shia federation within Iraq.