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Basra's Wary Rebirth
Before, Religious Hard-Liners Enforced a Harsh Rule; Now, Freedoms Have Returned -- but for How Long?

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.

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:

"I love life."

More Conf idence In Maliki's Rule

Once Iraq's most vibrant city, Basra attracted traders and seamen from across the Arab world, Asia and Africa. It was dubbed the Venice of the Middle East because of its network of canals.

Now most of those carry sewage.

The city was shelled repeatedly during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. The following decade, President Saddam Hussein brutally crushed two Shiite rebellions here. His government then purposely neglected the city, allowing it to collapse into a state of desert decay.

In 2003, some of the heaviest fighting of the U.S.-led invasion unfolded on the city's outskirts. The British soldiers who then took control were greeted by thousands of Basrans, many of them with flowers.

But religious hard-liners flourished despite the British administration, infiltrating every nook of society, including mosques and universities. Shiite militias with such names as Vengeance of God and Soldiers of Heaven mingled with the larger and better-known Mahdi Army of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Assassinations and kidnappings gripped the city.

"People called them the Taliban," said Abdul Sattar Thabid al-Beythani, dean of the College of Fine Arts, referring to Afghanistan's puritanical former rulers.

Other politically connected militias smuggled oil and controlled the ports. Three months after the British handed over control of Basra in December, Iraqi forces, backed by U.S. and British airpower, launched their crackdown. It was intended to return Basra, the chokepoint of Iraq's oil, to the central government's authority. The fighting stopped after Sadr ordered his fighters to stand down.

Today an Iraqi army battalion occupies the Sadrist headquarters at the Ministry of Youth and Sports, pocked with bullet holes like a giant slab of Swiss cheese. The office and mosque of the Iranian-backed Vengeance of God militia has been reduced to rubble.

Where Mahdi Army fighters once manned checkpoints across the city, Iraqi soldiers and policemen check vehicles behind blast walls on virtually every stretch of road. Iraqi army Humvees patrol militia strongholds.

In a traffic circle, Sadr's face has been scratched out on a billboard, the same treatment given to Hussein murals in the weeks after the invasion. Fresh graffiti in many neighborhoods praise Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's Shiite prime minister who sent in the troops despite U.S. warnings that they were ill-prepared.

"It shows the government is tough," said Ayad al-Kanaan, 43, a tribal leader and local council member. "Now, there is more confidence in Maliki's government and in Iraq's army."

Booming Business In Non-Islamic Music

Along Basra's corniche, a road running along the Shatt al Arab waterway that empties into the Persian Gulf, a rebirth is underway. Restaurants stay open late, no longer forced by insecurity to shut early. Men smoke water pipes in outdoor cafes, unconcerned about kidnappers.

On a recent night, Salam Hassan, 20, sold Arabic pop music CDs and cellphone ring tones on the sidewalk. A few months ago, Sadrists beat him up and fired a bullet that grazed his knee.

His crime: selling non-Islamic religious songs and ring tones.

After the offensive, he reopened. Now he sells 20 CDs a day, a sign that his customers also are bolder.

Weddings in Basra had become silent affairs. Kidnappers often targeted them, and gunmen sometimes tossed grenades into the wedding processions of rivals.

The sounds of drums and dancing now fill the streets every Thursday, when most weddings take place. Cars and buses are decked in flowers and play loud music as revelers head to local hotels for ceremonies.

"It's like a gift from God," exclaimed Abdul Emir Majid, 52, whose nephew was getting married on a recent day.

In the weeks after the crackdown, local vendors sold alcohol, a capital crime in the eyes of the Islamist militias. Now the concerns are different.

The new police chief recently ordered the vendors to stop alcohol sales. His reason? Once the ban was lifted, too many men were getting drunk in public.

"The first thing I did was drink whiskey on the corniche," said Ali Jassim, 20, another CD vendor, wiry and dressed in a tight orange shirt. He then grew out his hair, now shiny and slicked back with gel. The militants used to grab young men with long hair and lop it off in public.

On a warm recent evening, Abdul Karim Ali, 49, took his wife, Fatima, and 6-year-old daughter, Shehab, on a boat ride on the Shatt al Arab.

It was their first in five years. The religious purists frowned upon women socializing in public. Kidnappers also targeted families and children for ransom.

"Before, we were restricted. We felt we were being monitored," Ali said. "You can relish your freedom now."

"It is for her sake we went out," his wife, who wore a gold-colored head scarf, said as she looked at their daughter, who laughed and squealed throughout the ride.

'The Government Is Still the Same'

Basra's transformation is far from uniform, unfolding mostly on the surface.

It is still extremely rare to see women, even Christians, on the streets without a head scarf. Many women wear the black, head-to-toe abaya, either out of conservatism or fear.

"We're still cautious," Fatima said. "Anything can still happen."

On Al Jazaar Street, the city's most popular commercial district, Dhiya Jassim cranked up the 3,000-watt speakers in his DVD store, blasting a song by Egyptian pop star Amru Diab. The walls were covered with Western DVDs, many with sexually explicit scenes that would have drawn the ire of the extremists.

His dream is to open an arcade shop with sophisticated computer games, once forbidden.

"I am nervous that the black days could return," he said. "We're still afraid to start any big projects."

Samer Riad, 23, an artist, is still reluctant to paint portraits of women, another practice outlawed by the fundamentalists.

"I have canceled this idea from my mind," he said. He continues to draw portraits of shanasheels, the wooden grills that cover many balconies here, from which women can look without being seen by the world outside.

"I will not be restricted by anything, if this lasts," said Riad, referring to the security improvements.

In 2005, extremists ordered Mohammed, a plastic surgeon, to shut down his practice. "You are changing what God had created," he recalled them telling him. He refused -- at first.

Four times, he said, militiamen linked to a religious faction in the Basra government tried to assassinate him. They also destroyed $80,000 worth of surgical equipment during a rampage through his office. He fled to Syria, returning last year.

But he has no plan to reopen his practice.

"The government is still the same," said Mohammed, who asked that his full name not be used because he feared for his life.

Rendezvous At the Park

In al-Andalus Park, seven families held picnics on a recent evening. Children played on colorful slides and swings. Vendors sold ice cream and toys. It was a remarkable scene given that this park was the reason picnics were banned in Basra.

In March 2005, Mahdi Army fighters barged into a picnic held in the park by engineering students, killed a Christian woman and her fiance, and injured 15 people. They confiscated cellphones and destroyed tape players and music cassettes.

"They beat up everybody who was walking with a girl," recalled Salih Foaud, 22, as he stood near his stall of Spider-Man dolls and toy saucer sets. "For those girls not wearing a head scarf, they punched their faces. They broke one woman's jaw."

On this evening, Zainalabedeen Sabah, 20, and his fiancee, Iman Emad, 17, sat at a table in one corner. The park, they thought, was now one of the few public places in Basra where they could enjoy each other's company. As a precaution, they arrived separately.

"We can't walk everywhere together," said Sabah, slim, with long Elvis Presley sideburns. "Sometimes, in some places, I can't even hold her hand."

As Foaud watched the families enjoy the new security, his eyes drifted toward two young men floating around the park, listening intently to conversations.

"The Mahdi Army is still here," Foaud said. "They didn't totally finish them. "

A Militia of Tribesmen, Waiting for Mahdi Army

Militants send Ayad al-Kanaan, the tribal leader, death threats nearly every day. He heads the largest tribe in Tannouma, a neighborhood where the Mahdi Army ruled.

"The Mahdi Army will be back. And you will be under their feet," read one recent text message he received on his cellphone. "Maliki cannot help you."

Two weeks ago, Kanaan's men found bombs planted along a route he drives frequently. He keeps a well-oiled AK-47 behind his living room couch.

"They are waiting to rise up again, but their wings are broken," said Kanaan, a polite man with a white goatee who prefers a shirt and slacks to tribal robes.

The Iraqi army has pulled out of his area to focus on other parts of Basra. So Kanaan has launched his own government-sanctioned paramilitary force, drawn mostly from his tribesmen.

His 760 men patrol an area along the border with Iran. But the Iraqi government has yet to pay his men their $260 monthly salaries. They have only 10 vehicles. Most of his men purchased their own weapons and uniforms.

"We are afraid that if they are not paid, the militias will lure them away," he said.

A Sense Of Impending Doom

For the violinists of the Fine Arts College, the new freedoms are a mixed blessing. The death threats have stopped. They no longer have to hide their instruments in bags when they leave the university.

But they have few places to play. Iraq's security is still too fragile for concerts to be held in most public areas.

"We don't have a lot of musical events or festivals," lamented Qais Oda, 35, the school's violin teacher.

Nearby, the graduating class of the Translation Department held a festive party, with singing and dancing. But their joy was bittersweet: Jobs for graduates are scarce.

Zaki and Jawad know their limits, too.

Jawad carries an Islamic head scarf in her purse -- just in case. Outside the college, she wears less makeup to avoid attracting the attention of extremists. Although she writes poetry, she's afraid to attend literary gatherings because women are not allowed to recite their work.

"The British did nothing to protect us," Zaki said. "If the Iraqi army leaves, perhaps we will be targeted more than before. They might take revenge on us because we are so free."

The dangers remain on campus as well. That morning, a Mahdi Army member stopped them in the hallway for walking too close together. He demanded to see Zaki's identification card and was never confronted by the school's administration.

"They are afraid he will regain power again," said Zaki, the brand name "American Classics" emblazoned across his T-shirt.

He paused.

"I know this is temporary," he said. "I want to enjoy this time."

Special correspondents Zaid Sabah and Aahad Ali contributed to this report.

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