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Basra Crippled by Control of Islamist Extremists

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Basra is the largest city in southern Iraq. It's situated on the Shatt al-Arab waterway, and it's Iraq's gateway to the Persian Gulf. It was a booming port and a major oil producer, and it was renowned for its raucous nightlife. But years of Saddam Hussein's wars and repression, as well as international sanctions, crippled the city.

Three years after the U.S. invaded, Basra is still mired in poverty, and daily life in the once cosmopolitan city is being transformed by the growing power of conservative Islamist parties.

NPR's Anne Garrels went to Basra, and she has this report.

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

At a CD store in Basra, business is not what it used to be. Girls no longer come shopping here. And owner Saya Jabbar (ph) wonders where all his old customers have disappeared.

Mr. SAYA JABBAR (Businessman, Basra, Iraq): (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: Perhaps their tastes have suddenly changed, he says with undisguised sarcasm. A few CD stores have been attacked. The rest quickly got the message. Jabbar has refused to close down, because his family depends on the income. But he's lowered his profile. He's removed all the posters of popular singers, replacing them with pictures of Shiite clerics. The CD shelves are empty. He keeps his stock hidden.

Mr. JABBAR: (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: He says he did all this out of fear. A year ago, militiamen loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr brutally attacked students who gathered together in a public park. They said students had violated Islamic norms by singing and dancing. Police stood by and watched. Once again, the message was clear. Since then, there have been no more picnics.

Men still play dominoes in the diminishing number of restaurants in the city, but women and alcohol are no longer visible. Women appear on the streets only fleetingly, dressed in black robes or long skirts, loose blouses and head scarves.

Sheik Khalil al-Malaki (ph), the local spokesman for radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, lives in a Basra slum. He has two wives, who are fully veiled. He says the Sadrists do not approve of interfering in people's personal affairs. But then he says there is only one way to behave.

Sheik KHALIL AL-MALAKI (Basra spokesman for Moqtada al-Sadra): (Through translator) If you go back to all religions, they don't approve of alcohol or women walking publicly without a veil.

GARRELS: At Basra University, boys and girls keep a discreet distance. Mixed class parties at the university are banned. 22-year-old Najar (ph) says she has much less freedom than her mother had when she was a student. But Najar approves of the restrictions.

NAJAR (Student, Basra University): Of course, before there is not very much virtue of Islam, but now we watch more religion (unintelligible) now than before.

GARRELS: Twenty-three-old Ahmed resents the growing pressure from Islamist political parties who are active on campus.

AHMED (Student, Basra University): (Through translator) We cannot dress the way that we want. They make angry remarks if we have long hair or if a girl wears a tight skirt. There is no democracy here.

GARRELS: While predominantly Shiite, the Iraqis of Basra are confronting competing visions of what this means. Though a Shiite and an Islamic scholar, Dr. Mufhad Mushashe (ph) heads a secular political party.

Dr. MUFHAD MUSHASHE (Islamic scholar, Basra): (Through translator) We cannot have an Islamic country in Iraq, because there are too many ideas here about what Islam is. Sunnis think one way, Shiites another.

GARRELS: Be they Shiite or Sunni, Basra's middle class continues to educate its daughters, and teacher Imam Abdulmajit (ph) is proud of her students.

Ms. IMAM ABDULMAJIT (Teacher, Basra): The girls in Iraq are willing to study better than the boys.

(Soundbite of classroom)

GARRELS: At this, one of the best schools in Basra, 50 to 60 girls are crammed into a classroom, three to a desk. Despite the stark conditions and lack of facilities, they've seen no obstacles to becoming doctors, engineers, and scientists. But some of the students bristle at restrictions on their personal life.

SOMER (ph) (student, Basra): We just cannot walk in the street alone. We should walk with a man. We can not have a free zone.

GARRELS: Sixteen year old Somer doesn't wear a head scarf.

SOMER: Everybody wants me to wear hijab, you know, if you like it or not. I want to be confident with wearing hijab when I like it and when I want it to do it. Not somebody, you know, forcing me to.

GARRELS: She wants to leave Iraq.

SOMER: Somehow I'm going to die, and I'm going to die a sad girl. You know? Everything happening in Iraq right now is very bad and make us, you know, desperate. Real dangerous, especially on the Iraqi women. A girl, (unintelligible) not putting anything on her head, she may be killed.

GARRELS: A supervisor for the Ministry of Education says education, especially for girls, is deteriorating.

Unidentified Man #1 (Ministry of Education, Iraq): (Through translator) In many schools, parents don't want their girls to mix with boys, so they don't want them to go to universities because of this.

GARRELS: And faced with financial burdens, poorer families often have to choose between educating boys or girls. The girls are the ones to lose.

ZANAB (ph) (student, Iraq): (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: Nine-year-old Zanab helps her father weld a broken motorcycle. He says she was the top student in her class, but the school was far away. He pulled her out to help him at work. When a new primary school is built closer to home, he says she'll be too old.

Unidentified Man #2 (Zanab's father): (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: Anyway, he says, he can't afford to buy the uniform and copy books, and after all, he adds, Zanab's only a girl.

Yet, he proudly pronounces her welding skills to be as good as any man's. But Zanab is approaching adolescence and will soon no longer be allowed to work in public. Her well-honed skills will be useless and with no formal education, she will be married off and kept inside the house. And the wedding will not be what it once was.

Under pressure from conservative Islamists, local traditions are changing.

(Soundbite of Basra music)

GARRELS: At his CD store, Saya Jabber plays the Basra music that once accompanied wedding festivities. Musicians are now out of work. Stores that sell instruments have shut down. Now, Jabber says, weddings are like funerals.

Mr. JABBER: (Through translator) When a bride is taken to her husband's house, people are wary of doing anything that might breach the new moral code. Rather than elicit gunshots or other trouble, the wedding party travels in silence.

I feel sad about this, because people's happiness is incomplete. We are all religious people, but that doesn't mean religion should be part of the government. There should be a separation.

GARRELS: For now, those with guns are telling people how to live. The local government cannot, or will not, stop them.

Anne Garrels, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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