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Shiites bring rigid piety to Iraq's south

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In Basra these days, it's not uncommon to see armed men from Shiite religious groups standing at the gates of Basra University, scrutinizing female students to make sure their dresses are the right length and their makeup properly modest.

Any woman violating their standards of Muslim dignity, relates Henan, a psychology student, is ordered home. "These religious militiamen tell us how to dress, and prevent us from listening to music in public or interacting with male students," she says. "It makes me burn inside."

Henan is not the only Basran furious at the extremist Shiite Muslims who now dominate this southern Iraqi port city bordering Iran. Especially among the middle and intellectual classes, an increasing drumbeat of resentment is rising about what many see as a distortion of Basra's traditionally easygoing, tolerant attitudes toward life.

"No alcohol, no music CDs, woman forced to wear hijab, people murdered in the streets - this is not the city I remember," says Samir, an editor of one of Basra's largest newspapers. (His name, and others, have been changed for security reasons.) "In the past, Basra revolted against attempts to make it too Islamic."

One woman living in Basra says, "Before, we had Saddam; now we have religious parties and militias. To them, a woman's smile is a crime."

With the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, Shiite organizations, many with close associations with Iran, seized political control of the south. The Jan. 30 elections solidified their power, especially in Basra, where 35 out of the 41 members of the province's Governing Council (GC) belong to such groups as Dawa Islamiyya or the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). And despite some minor doctrinal differences, their vision of this city is clear.

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