Basra sings again as Iraqi army patrols the streets

Music dealers sell CDs in Basra in May, 2008, after the Iraqi army rid the city of Islamists who attacked music as haram, or forbidden.
Music dealers sell CDs in Basra in May, 2008, after the Iraqi army rid the city of Islamists who attacked music as haram, or forbidden.

BASRA, Iraq — For the past three years, Ahmed Aboud and Moustapha Dawood stowed away their colorful drums, keyboards and golden trumpets in their tiny music shop and considered giving up their love of music.

Shiite Islamist groups enforced their version of morality in this southern port city with grenades, guns and closed fists. Music was among the sins they refused to tolerate. Just two months ago, they threw grenades into wedding parties that played music, beat unmarried men and women who sat together, and intimidated women into covering their hair. Some women were killed.

The number of professional singers dropped from 70 to fewer than 10, and musicians like Aboud and Dawood took precautions. They hung a picture of the revered Shiite figure Ali, the cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, in their tiny shop in Saymar, Basra's music district, and took down the drums that had hung outside the store.

Now, however, Aboud's eyes sparkle as he moves his fingers across the keys of a keyboard in the middle of his shop as two friends sing about love and another, Mohammed Shia, beats a drum whose rhythms waft into the streets.

Aboud's filled with praise for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who two months ago dispatched thousands of Iraqi soldiers to take control of this city from the Shiite Islamist groups who'd ruled for so long.

"I will kiss Maliki," Aboud said. "I think he's a rose. We're not afraid anymore."

Outside, the city is filled with Humvees and Iraqi soldiers. The shops again are busy with customers. The streets are crowded and bustling. Colorful drums once again hang outside music stores. Basra, so long the battlefield for Shiite militia groups with names like the Mahdi Army, Vengeance of God, Party of God, and Islamic Notification, feels like a city again.

But Basra is not a city without fear. You can see it in the downcast eyes of Abu Muntather and hear it in his quivering voice.

Abu Muntather is a member of the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to the Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, and the target, at least in part, of Maliki's offensive.

Abu Muntather defends the Mahdi Army's role in Basra and he sees the offensive not as an effort to establish order in the city, home to Iraq's largest port, but as a cynical manipulation by Maliki and the two rival Shiite parties that dominate the central government to eradicate Sadr supporters before provincial elections, now thought likely in November.

Abu Muntather fought the Iraqi troops. "We did not want to fight them," he said. "The Iraqi Army brought the fight to us."

Now he tells no one that he's a member of the Mahdi Army, not even his young son, and he asks to be identified only by his nickname.

"What is the true intention of the operation? Why the Sadrists? It is the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and bad things from Iran that are the problem," he said, referring to the most influential Shiite political party in Iraq.

The backlash against Sadr is visible here. In Wedding Square, near Sadr headquarters, someone has smeared a poster bearing Sadr's image with black graffiti. Someone has torn down the posters of Sadrists who died fighting the British forces before they were driven out in late 2007. The Sadr office itself is pocked with bullet holes and occupied by the National Police.

Across from the office a vast soccer field where thousands of Sadrists once prayed is empty and the tarp that covered the area destroyed.

"They have no mercy," Abu Muntather said about the Iraqi troops. "They torture our people and when they hear the name of the Mahdi Army and Sayed Muqtada al Sadr they detain them and beat them."

On Friday the Iraqi Army shot over the crowds of Sadrists bowing in prayer, killing one person and wounding two.

"I feel wounded inside," Abu Muntather said. But he said he and his fellow Mahdi Army members had no choice but to stand down when Sadr finally ordered them to.

"We are Shiite. Shiite fighting Shiite this is shame," he said. "If we didn't have the order from Sayed Muqtada we wouldn't have let them in Basra."

It was not just the Mahdi Army that the Iraqi Army targeted. The army also went after d the feared Vengeance of God, an Iranian-backed group lead by Yousef al Sinawi. A mosque that belonged to the group is now just rubble and Basra residents sigh with relief at the sight.

Vengeance of God was accused of shooting women for dressing indecently and torturing people in the now destroyed mosque. A popular video on many people's cell phones shows stacks of dollar bills and Euro notes allegedly found in Sinawi's headquarters.

No one seems to mourn for them in this city that was once known as the "mother of the lute."

University students again are downloading music to their cell phones. Young men and women dare to talk to one another without fear of retribution.

Still, they are cautious. Inside the English department at Basra University, a group of men celebrated the end of long-bearded Islamists dictating their behavior. But they wouldn't share their names.

"They'll come back," one student predicted.

On Jazaer Street, a busy shopping district, once-banned music CDs are back and those filled with Shiite sermons are nowhere to be found. But the vendors won't give their names. One said he'd already been given a note warning that what he did was haram, forbidden.

There are still bomb attacks. Two weeks ago, grenades were thrown at wedding parties and a bomb went off outside Aboud's store.

Gen. Mohammed Jawad Hweidy, the head of the Basra operations, said he knows there are "sleeper cells." "The presence of the army is strong," he said. "We must keep pressure on them."

He said the army's detained some 600 people and released only 65. About 1,200 members of the police were dismissed for corruption. "We are pursuing them everywhere," he said."

Residents of the sewage-filled areas of Hayaniyah and Qibla, once Mahdi Army strongholds, agree. When the security forces don't find the men they're looking for, the residents said, they take their family members.

The city is torn between believing that things are getting better and worrying that the danger will return.

Zuhur Hussein, a famous dancer from Basra, still shrouds herself in a black flowing cloak and scarf. She never stopped dancing but even now she's afraid.

"I feel like my killer is always walking behind me," she said.

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