Basra Groups Vie for Dominance

In Iraq, Basra has been touted as an oasis of calm in a country wracked by a vicious insurgency. Basra has had far fewer attacks than other major cities; British troops there are rarely targeted. But hard-line groups are trying to impose their version of Islam on the community, and militias are carrying out quiet killings that have left many afraid.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Iraq's southern city of Basra is often portrayed as an oasis of calm in a country struggling with a vicious insurgency. Basra does see far fewer attacks than Baghdad and other major cities, and the British troops who patrol Basra are rarely targeted. But as NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro discovered, that surface calm hides a violent reality. Hard-line groups are trying to impose their version of Islam on the community. And militias are quietly carrying out killings, leaving many people in Basra afraid.

(Soundbite of car horn)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:

The boardwalk in front of Basra's old port is bustling every night. Known as the Kornishir(ph), it's an area of small waterfront cafes. Waiters rush around, serving tea and kabobs to entire families who come out to entertain themselves on the riverfront. Eighteen-year-old Athar Kadam(ph) is here with his family. He says that he comes because, quite simply, there's nothing else to do.

Mr. ATHAR KADAM: (Through Translator) I feel bored. There is no electricity. It's very hot. This place is like a park. We roam around to change our surroundings.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Basra used to be well known for its music and entertainment. Not anymore, though. Kadam says bands don't even play at weddings now. Another man passing by, Ahmad Hashim(ph), suddenly interrupts the conversation to explain.

Mr. AHMAD HASHIM: (Through Translator) All the people who wear a turban says everything is now forbidden. It is forbidden to do this, it is forbidden to do that. So where's the freedom?

(Soundbite of play)

Unidentified Boy: (Chanting in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Boy: (Chanting in foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At Basra's municipal theater, a small boy waves his hands on stage, pretending to be a swan while he chants a dark prophecy in the new play debuting here. It's called "The Night of the Death of Human Justice; the Killing of Imam Ali." It deals with the martyrdom of one of the most revered figures in Shiite Islam. The play is written by the head of the local cultural office of Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric who led two uprisings against US forces last year. Hisham Shubar(ph) is the director. Shubar says the Islamist parties have become patrons of the arts of late. They not only author scripts, but they also pay for the shows to be put on. He says it's important for them to get their cultural message across. When asked why there are no actresses in the play, Shubar laughs.

Mr. HISHAM SHUBAR (Director): (Laughs) (Through Translator) In the new Iraq, to have a woman on the stage is not right. The issue involves what is religiously lawful and what's not.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He goes on to suggest that female actors have questionable morals, which is why they're not allowed to perform. Last January's elections created a new political reality in Basra that's quickly influencing the cultural tenor of the city. The Islamist parties won big, and they control the provincial council. The governor is from the now-ruling Fadila or Virtue party. Moqtada al-Sadr's group also has a tangible presence here along with the more recognized Islamist groups, such as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI. And along with the parties come their militias, which do with intimidation what the parties may not be able to do by law.

(Soundbite of cars honking)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ten-year-old Akhil(ph) sells pop music cassettes for a buck apiece at a traffic intersection. While there are still a few stores that sell popular discs, some have faced attacks and have closed down, which means Akhil does well for himself. But his job carries risk.

AKHIL: (Through Translator) They have come many times. And one of them told me that if I hadn't been a child, he would have killed me for selling this music.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: By `they,' he means one of the shadowy militias that roam this city.

AKHIL: (Through Translator) They were dressed in black with sunglasses and hidden faces. They beat one of our friends.

(Soundbite of car honking and whistle)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thara Yusef Yakub's(ph) thin body is draped in black. The 46-year-old Basra University professor is still in mourning. She sits inside an air-conditioned hotel room and calmly proceeds to describe what happened to her family's troop.

Professor THARA YUSEF YAKUB (Basra University): (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says that her sister-in-law, her niece and the wife of her cousin belonged to a women's singing group that was once popular in Basra. They would perform at parties and weddings in the privacy of people's homes. One night, though, after a performance, gunmen pulled up as the group returned home. They shot and killed two of her relatives and wounded the other. Thara says other musical troops have been targeted, as well, so that now few risk performing. She says the overwhelming feature of life in the city these days is religious extremism.

Prof. YAKUB: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Other Basra residents are not so willing to talk. One man from the writers' union, who asked not to be named, is clearly terrified when asked about who's behind the threats and attacks. His hands shake violently.

Unidentified Man #2: I'm sorry I can't. I'm sorry. This is a dangerous thing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He would only add on tape that the idea of Basra as a peaceful city is a lie.

Unidentified Man #2: The violence under the surface.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is one party that's only spoken about in hushed tones. It's called the Vengeance of God, and many Basra residents say it's supported by Iran. A 22-year-old Shiite, who did not want his name used for fear of reprisals, spoke at length to NPR. He said that members of the Vengeance of God came to his house and attacked his family. He alleges they were working with the security forces in Basra. He says his family was targeted because his father had been a high-ranking figure in the navy. He gave a detailed account of being tortured by members of the police.

Unidentified Man #3: (Through Translator) They electrocuted my father in front of us. And then they brought out the pliers and tore out a nail from his hand. We were slapped, and so was our father. We couldn't bear to see him hit.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says his father is now in hiding after his release, and the whole family is thinking of fleeing. Many in Basra allege that the police are working in cooperation with the militias or at least are heavily infiltrated by them. Basra's police chief, General Hassan Suad(ph) al-Saadi, denied that charge. He also said that he never heard of an instance when musicians had been attacked. The police chief also praised the local Islamist militias, saying that they are contributing to the security of Basra.

Prof. YAKUB: (Singing in foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back in the hotel room, Professor Thara Yusef Yakub sings an old song about this port city. It's about a man in Baghdad who loves a woman in Basra, and she says it reminds her of her dead sister-in-law. It says, in part, `My body is in Baghdad, but my soul lives in Basra. I am restless and alone. I suffer in my bewilderment. Only for the sake of your eyes, I've endured pain and endless sighs.'

Prof. YAKUB: (Singing in foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: After she finishes, she apologizes, saying her voice has been long out of use. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

NORRIS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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