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Basra's Wary Rebirth

Two months after the Iraqi government ordered its fledgling military to root out religious militias in Basra, many of the city's nearly 3 million residents are resuming lives that had been interrupted by an austere interpretation of Islam.

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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 1, 2008

BASRA, Iraq -- Mohammed Zaki's black hair glistened with gel, his muscular body bulged through his T-shirt, and on his chin, he sported a wisp of goatee. He held the hand of his girlfriend, Sabreen Jawad, whose cascade of hair was unfettered by an Islamic head scarf. The sounds of violins and saxophones flowed through the corridor, notes of musical freedom.

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This was anything but an ordinary day inside Basra University's College of Fine Arts. Under the harsh constraints imposed by extremist Shiite Muslim clerics and militias that until recently controlled this city, men with Western hairstyles were threatened and beaten. Women without head scarves were sometimes raped and killed. Love was a secret ritual.

"I wouldn't even be able to stand next to her," said Zaki, 26.

Two months after the Iraqi government ordered its fledgling military to root out the religious militias here in Iraq's third-largest city, Basra is beginning to awaken from a four-year dormancy. A recent week-long visit that included several dozen interviews revealed that many of the city's nearly 3 million residents are resuming lives that had been interrupted by an austere interpretation of Islam.

But their new freedom in this historically cosmopolitan city near the head of the Persian Gulf comes with boundaries drawn by fear of the future. The root cause of their previous grievances -- well-armed militias fighting for power and economic resources -- continue to exert influence over day-to-day life.

Conservative Shiite religious parties, backed by these militias, still control government ministries. Security is brittle, ushered in by a temporary deployment of 30,000 Iraqi soldiers and expedient political cease-fire agreements. Corruption as well as a lack of basic public services, jobs and investment are deepening frustrations.

And in today's Iraq, even moderate Shiite clergy view themselves as protectors of the nation's Islamic identity, ensuring that Basra might never fully regain its freewheeling, secular past.

For now, though, a collective sense of relief is washing over this sprawling port city, which sits at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

On this day, Zaki embraced the forbidden. He walked to an organ and played "Listen to Your Heart" by the 1980s Swedish pop band Roxette. He then swung into a medley of Western and Arab tunes, as Jawad, 23, watched adoringly.

Another student joined him, strumming the oud, a traditional pear-shaped instrument outlawed here because its music was branded secular.

When the pair finished, their classmates applauded loudly, itself an act of courage. Even enjoying music was banned in recent years.

Zaki smiled. A tattoo in Chinese on his right arm, which he once hid because body art was deemed un-Islamic, read:


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