BASRA, Iraq, March 28 -- Celia Garabet thought students were roughhousing. Sinan Saeed was sure a fight had erupted. Within a few minutes, on a sunny day at a riverside park, they realized something different was afoot. A group of Shiite Muslim militiamen with rifles, pistols, thick wire cables and sticks had charged into crowds of hundreds at a college picnic. They fired shots, beat students and hauled some of them away in pickup trucks. The transgressions: men dancing and singing, music playing and couples mixing.
That melee on March 15 and its fallout have redrawn the debate that has shadowed Iraq's second-largest city since the U.S. invasion in 2003: What is the role of Islam in daily life? In once-libertine Basra, a battered port in southern Iraq near the Persian Gulf, the question dominates everything these days, from the political parties in power to the style of dress in the streets.
Mohammed Musabah, Basra's newly appointed governor, has said of students' grievances, "The issue is settled."
(Anthony Shadid -- The Washington Post)
In the days that followed the melee, hundreds of students, angry about the injuries and arrests, marched on the school administration building and then the governor's office, demanding an apology and, more important, the dissolution of the dreaded campus morality police. The militiamen who attacked the picnickers at first boasted of stamping out debauchery, even distributing videos of the event. But, gauging the popular revulsion, they later admitted to what they termed mistakes. The governor, himself an Islamic activist, urged dialogue to calm a roiled city and deemed the case closed, even as students insisted they remained unsatisfied.
To many in Basra the students managed what no local party or politician had yet done: They interrupted, if briefly, a tide of religious conservatism that has shuttered liquor stores in a city that once had dozens, meted out arbitrary justice and encouraged women to wear a veil and dress in a way considered modest.
"The students broke through the barriers of fear," said Ali Abbas Khafif, a 55-year-old writer and union organizer jailed for 23 years under former president Saddam Hussein. "This was the first mass response to religious power."
The victory may be fleeting in a city where Islamic activism and guns often go hand in hand. Even in their moment of triumph, many secular students acknowledge they are fighting a losing battle; some suggest it is already lost.
"We have felt both our weakness and our strength," said Saif Emad, 24.
The day began with eight yellow school buses lined up by 10 a.m. at one of the two campuses of Basra University, a sprawling expanse where pink bougainvillea interrupts a dreary landscape. Hundreds of students from the university's engineering college piled into the buses. They were joined at Andalus Park by hundreds more on foot and in their own cars. By 10:30 a.m., there were from 500 to 750 students and guests at a picnic the university had approved.
Young men started playing soccer. Others went to buy ice cream. The more boisterous began dancing to a song, "He Went to Basra and Forgot Me," by Ali Hatem, an Iraqi singer. A few grew exuberant, thrusting tape players along with red-and-white scarves into the air. Most of the women were veiled, although a handful, including some Christians, went bareheaded.
"All of a sudden, students started running," recalled Garabet, 21, a civil engineering student.
At that moment, from 20 to 40 militiamen loyal to the militant young Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr and his Mahdi Army charged into the two-acre park of overgrown grass, concrete picnic tables and paths of colored tiles. Some of them wore checkered headscarves over their faces, others black balaclavas. They carried sticks, cable, pistols and rifles, a few with a weapon in each hand. They were accompanied by two clerics in robes and turbans: Abdullah Menshadawi and Abdullah Zaydi.
Garabet, an unveiled woman from an Armenian Christian family, never saw her assailant. He struck her twice in the back of the head with his fist. "I was afraid to turn around," she said.
She stumbled, then headed with others toward the black steel gate. Militiamen were shouting "Infidels!"
"It was chaos," she said. "Everyone was yelling."