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Militiamen Push Islam In Al-Basrah

  • Kathleen Ridolfo

British soldiers on patrol in Al-Basrah, 20 March Thirty militiamen loyal to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr allegedly attacked 600 picnicking students from Al-Basrah University's College of Engineering at the city's Al-Andulus park on 17 March, claiming the students had violated Islamic norms by dressing in Western clothing, singing, and dancing. The incident sparked several days of protests and raised questions about the absence of the rule of law in the face of the religious extremism that appears to be dictating new societal norms in Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated south.

Incidents such as this one are not new to Iraq, but they appear to be happening with increasing frequency. As parliamentarians prepare to draft a permanent constitution that will determine the rights of women and minorities and the basis of law (Shari'a or not), questions arise whether vulnerable segments of the population will have the wherewithal to protest openly what some predict could be a degradation of rights in the new Iraq. Those who advocate that Islamic law serve as the sole basis for the new constitution say it is their right to impose the will of the majority upon the minority. One aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has said that public freedoms should be regulated based on the Islamic character of the country.

CPA Blame

Some critics of the U.S.-led occupation blamed the former Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) for focusing rebuilding efforts on Baghdad, while paying little attention to Iraq's second city in the south. In November 2003, British officials said they were unable to make important administrative decisions without prior approval from CPA officials in Baghdad, who they claimed rarely returned e-mails or phone calls. "There is an operational lack of teeth," Sir Hilary Synnott, then the regional commander for southern Iraq, told telegraph.co.uk, the website reported on 11 November 2003 (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 14 November 2003). "We need more human resources," Synnott said. The website reported at the time that out of some 2,000 CPA employees, only 20 were stationed in southern Iraq. The same report indicated that local cleric Ahmad al-Maliki had reportedly seized control over the school system in southern Iraq, and was promoting religious fundamentalism in the schools.

Militias have held sway over Al-Basrah since the fall of the Hussein regime in 2003. In January 2004, London's "The Sunday Times" uncovered the existence of a secret police force operating in Al-Basrah that has reportedly kidnapped, detained, and even killed former Ba'ath Party members. The Istikhbarat al-Shurta (Police Intelligence) unit reportedly operated with the approval of British forces, and families of Iraqis kidnapped at gunpoint by the unit complained that British officials refused to help them in locating their relatives. The newspaper reported that the intelligence unit employed members of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq's (SCIRI) armed wing, the Badr Brigades.

Some of the victims were former Ba'ath Party members who were encouraged to register as such and reapply for their jobs, only to be killed in the street after leaving the registration office. "When talking to normal ordinary people, we say that we are police, but in fact we work for the government," Istikhbarat al-Shurta Deputy Director Abbas Abd al-Ali told "The Sunday Times." "Only one-third of our work is police work. The rest is civilian intelligence and intelligence for state officials. We have our eyes and ears everywhere around the city."

The same intelligence unit apparently stood by as al-Sadr militiamen attacked students during last week's picnic at Al-Andulus Park. One student, Ahmad (a pseudonym) who was not at the picnic, but who attended subsequent demonstrations was asked on 23 March about the attitudes of other Shi'ite groups in the city about the incident, and specifically about the Badr Brigades. He said that both the Al-Da'wah Party and SCIRI issued official condemnations of the attacks, but in reality did nothing to stop them.

"The intelligence service that has arrested students is staffed by Al-Badr forces," Ahmad said. "The police stand with the [al-Sadr] militia against the students. [The police] do nothing." Asked whether the new governorate council intervened, he said: "The governorate council also does nothing, because it is new. The governor says, 'I am new, I can't do anything.' The situation is growing worse by the day, and [the militias] are trying to impose armed terror on the people." Ahmad's statements indicate acquiescence on the part of the newly elected governorate council, which is dominated by Islamic parties. Conservative judges are also invoking Shari'a law in some courtrooms, nytimes.com reported on 6 February.

The army is no help either. Army personnel guarding the university on 22 March reportedly allowed al-Sadr militiamen to enter the campus where they allegedly beat a student from the civil engineering department. According to Ahmad, al-Sadr militiamen have been rounding up students who spoke publicly about that incident and forcing them to sign a written statement that they will no longer talk or demonstrate.

Moving Onto Campuses

Media reports indicate that Islamist groups have gained control over student organizations on university campuses throughout Iraq since the fall of the Hussein regime. Al-Sadr's militia in particular, has made strong inroads onto campuses in the absence of mainstream political movements, one observer noted.

But university campuses are not the only targets of militiamen bent on imposing Islamic norms on Iraqi society. Music and liquor stores in Al-Basrah and in Baghdad have been routinely targeted since mid-2003. In April 2004, media reports indicated that the British military was reluctant to take action against militias operating contraband rings in Al-Basrah. One month later, the British responded to reports that al-Sadr militiamen had set up checkpoints in the city by calling the incidents nothing more than a disturbance.

Women in Al-Basrah and Baghdad have frequently complained that they are harassed if they leave their house without hijab, many noting the graffiti that lines the walls of some neighborhoods in the capital threatening death to women who refuse to veil. Hairdressers and barbers have also been targeted -- some even killed. Salons have been bombed or forced to close for giving "Western" style haircuts. Christian women in particular feel singled out by the extremists, who they say are forcing them to abide by Islamic practices, completely disregarding their religious rights as Christians. In the absence of the rule of law, militias send a signal to all Iraqis that they are empowered to dictate societal norms, instilling fear in all who contradict these norms.

There is no guarantee that the Iraqi constitution will provide safeguards for individual and religious freedoms in the new Iraq. If the constitution fails to offer explicit guarantees of rights, it will leave Iraq's most vulnerable citizens -- women and minorities -- susceptible to rights abuses. As some Islamists already contend, a constitution that calls for 'no laws to be enacted that contradict the tenets of Islam,' (a stipulation already laid down in the TAL) in essence sanctions the enforcement Shari'a tenets that, for example, entitle women to half the inheritance that her male counterpart would be entitled to. Ultimately, the decision will lie at the ballot box, where the Iraqi people will approve the constitution through a referendum.

[RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) interviewed two Al-Basrah University students, Zaynab and Ahmad (not their real names), who were involved in the clashes with al-Sadr militiamen and subsequent demonstrations. Click on their names to read their interviews.]
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