In Basra, vigilantes wage deadly campaign against women

Women in Basra are targets for self-styled religious enforcers.
Women in Basra are targets for self-styled religious enforcers. Sylwia Kapuscinski / MCT

BASRA, Iraq — Women in Basra have become the targets of a violent campaign by religious extremists, who leave more than 15 female bodies scattered around the city each month, police officers say.

Maj. Gen. Abdel Jalil Khalaf, the commander of Basra's police, said Thursday that self-styled enforcers of religious law threatened, beat and sometimes shot women who they believed weren't sufficiently Muslim.

"This is a new type of terror that Basra is not familiar with," he said. "These gangs represent only themselves, and they are far outside religious, forgiving instructions of Islam."

Often, he said, the "crime" is no more than wearing Western clothes or not wearing a head scarf.

Before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Iraqi women had had rights enshrined in the country's constitution since 1959 that were among the broadest of any Arab or Islamic nation. However, while the new constitution says that women are equal under the law, critics have condemned a provision that says no law can contradict the "established rulings" of Islam as weakening women's rights.

The vigilantes patrol the streets of Basra on motorbikes or in cars with dark-tinted windows and no license plates. They accost women who aren't wearing the traditional robe and head scarf known as hijab. Religious extremists in the city also have been known to attack men for clothes or even haircuts deemed too Western.

Like all of southern Iraq, Basra is populated mostly by Shiite Muslims, so sectarian violence isn't a major problem, but security has deteriorated as Shiite militias fight each other for power. British troops in the area pulled out last month.

Khalaf, who has a reputation for outspokenness in a city where that can get you killed, scoffed at the groups, calling them no better than criminal gangs. He said he didn't care if some were affiliated with the militias, he planned to crack down on them.

"If there is a red line related to the insurgents and militias, we will pass it over, because it's one of the factors that destroy the society," he said.

The violence is displacing the few members of religious minorities in the area. Fuad Na'im, one of a handful of Christians left in the city, said Thursday that the way his wife dressed made the whole family a target.

"I was with my wife few days ago when two young men driving a motorbike stopped me and asked her about her clothes and why she doesn't wear hijab," he said. "When I told them that we are Christians, they beat us badly, and I would be dead if some people nearby hadn't intervened."

That was enough, he said.

"I'm about to leave the city where I was born and where my father and grandfather were buried, because I can't live in a place where we're asked about our clothes, food and drink."

Elsewhere in Iraq on Thursday, Mua'awia Jibara, a leader in the tribal movement to fight the group al Qaida in Iraq in concert with U.S. troops, was fatally injured when a roadside bomb exploded near his convoy southwest of Samara. He died in a hospital. Three of his guards also were killed.

Around 10 a.m., the deputy governor of Iskandariyah, about 30 miles south of Baghdad, was killed by a roadside bomb that targeted his convoy. Three guards also were killed.

There were several incidents of violence in Baghdad. In the eastern part of the city, a bomb planted in a minibus exploded about 9:30 a.m., killing four people and injuring seven.

Around noon, a car bomb exploded in the Wihda neighborhood of east Baghdad, killing three people and injuring eight. A roadside bomb exploded in the Waziriyah neighborhood in north Baghdad, killing one person and injuring two.

(Price reports for The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. Basri is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent. Special correspondent Hussein Kadhim contributed to this story.)