BASRA, Iraq—Given the choice, Rana al Asadi wouldn't wear a head scarf. But a few weeks ago, the 22-year-old English major at Basra University decided she didn't have that choice anymore.
Menacing groups of men have been stopping cars at the university gates and haranguing women whose heads are uncovered, accusing them of violating Islamic law. Male students have accosted them as they walked to class. As al Asadi spoke to a reporter in a courtyard, a scruffy-looking man handed out fliers that likened uncovered women to prostitutes and murderers.
"I fear them," she said simply.
Shiite Muslim religious extremists, backed by armed militias, are waging a campaign of intimidation to enforce a strict Islamic code of conduct in Iraq's second largest city. Neither the Iraqi police nor the British military forces that occupy Basra seem willing or able to stop it.
While there are no known cases of women being attacked for not covering up, three alcohol vendors and two bystanders were gunned down in February, the latest in a string of such assaults. A few weeks ago, gunmen pumped six bullets into a woman who ran a shop that sold romantic videos.
On the streets of Basra, a Shiite stronghold of 1.4 million people near the Kuwait border, the message has been received. In a port city that was once known for its nightclubs, it's now nearly impossible to buy an alcoholic drink. Head scarves are almost universal now at the university.
Basra, which gets far less attention from Western news media than Baghdad does, largely has been seen as a success, mainly because there have been far fewer attacks on the British troops who patrol here than on U.S. troops farther north.
But the effectiveness of the campaign by religious extremists raises questions about whether freedoms of expression and religion—newly enshrined in Iraq's interim constitution—will survive in the Shiite-dominated south after the coalition returns authority to Iraqis this summer.
"We believe that we are the supreme legislative authority in Iraq, because our constitution is the holy Quran, and for us, the holy Quran is the supreme constitution," said Sheik Abdul-Sattar al Bahadli, who runs the Basra office of hard-line Shiite leader Muqtada al Sadr, the son of a revered cleric whom Saddam Hussein had killed.
Polls show Sadr has little support. But pictures of his father dot the landscape in southern Iraq, and in the absence of a sovereign government, groups such as his are among the best organized.
Al Bahadli said the Sadr organization performed charitable and community work in Basra. It also conducts armed patrols, he said. A few months ago, the group met with video merchants.
"We told them that Iraq is living under certain norms and tribal traditions. Before these meetings, there were violations of the Arab, Islamic morals. In particular, there were sexy films. And after these meetings there was a positive response in the marketplace."
Video-sellers say it wasn't gentle persuasion that made them stop selling soft-core films, but terror. In addition to the woman's killing, merchants have been kidnapped and beaten. Al Bahadli said he renounces such tactics.
No arrests have been made in the religious killings, and an Iraqi police official said none were forthcoming.
That speaks to another problem in Basra: Residents say the police and the British are ineffective, not only against religious militias, but against regular street crime. Murders, carjackings and kidnappings are on the rise, according to a deputy medical examiner who tracks the body count at the city morgue.
Crime is a problem throughout Iraq, but in a January poll by Baghdad's Institute for Civil Society Studies, 67 percent of Basra residents said they felt unsafe in their neighborhoods, compared with 48 percent in Baghdad
The British army, which occupies Basra with about 8,200 soldiers, prefers to let the Iraqi police fight crime, although soldiers occasionally mount joint operations with the locals.
The British, steeped in colonial experience, have taken a hands-off approach to religious militias.
"We're not here to change the culture, and we're not here to create a utopia," said Maj. Tim Smith, a British army spokesman. "A lot of the problems that are happening here in society are as much for the Iraqis to sort out as well as us."
He and other British officials acknowledged that religious extremism was a problem in Basra, but he dismissed as "total bollocks" the charge that British forces are standing aside as militias run rampant.
In the months after the war, Smith said, the British allowed the militias to take a lead role in security patrols, as part of their philosophy of rapidly empowering local authorities.
"I think that was a mistake, (and) I think we're probably paying for it now," said Gareth Davies, the senior law and order adviser for the Coalition Provisional Authority's southern office.
Davies, a London prison warden who served five tours as an army officer in Northern Ireland, added, "They are effective, but that's not a reason for retaining something that is bad. The SS were effective," a reference to Adolf Hitler's elite troops.
In two dozen interviews with Basra residents, nearly everyone criticized the British as too lax with crime gangs and militias. Many said the Iraqi police were often too scared—or too sympathetic—to fight them.
Smith said British forces were working to contain and disarm the militias. But it's a delicate issue. There's no insurgency to speak of in Basra, where Shiites were happy to see the end of Saddam's regime. The British are loath to create one by taking on armed Shiites, just as American forces have trodden lightly with Shiite groups in Baghdad.
"It's something we have to be very pragmatic about, and of course if we appear pragmatic, some people might look at it as being complacent," Smith said.
There appears to be widespread sympathy, especially among men, for some of the religious militias' goals, underscoring the British dilemma. Several people expressed support for the killings of the alcohol dealers, for example, saying they were peddling their wares on a vice-infested street that became a public nuisance.
There are even allegations that a special unit of the police force was involved, something the British say they are investigating.
Another complication is that among the dozens of religious militias, some behave responsibly, residents and police officials say, while others are little more than criminal gangs.
The Badr Brigade, a large Iranian-backed militia group, said last week that it was negotiating to integrate itself into the Iraqi security forces. But locals say smaller groups, some of them affiliated with fringe political parties, will be much harder to control.
"I'd like to see Iraq free of these people," said Nesreen Qassim, 20, a psychology major who was one of the few women on the Basra campus last week who weren't wearing head scarves. "I just want to tell them: `Why are you imposing your views on others?'
"As for my security, I fear a lot."
(Dilanian reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq-basra