Los Angeles Times - latimes.com
June 1, 2003

Morality Police Leave Many Iraqis on Edge
* In post-Hussein void, some Shiites are trying to impose their beliefs. They oppose the U.S. plan to establish a secular democracy.

By John Daniszewski, Times Staff Writer


The liquor store owner, the beauty salon keeper, the video shop merchant, the cinema operator and bareheaded women out shopping all have something to be nervous about in the new American-occupied Iraq: Iranian-style committees for the prevention of vice and the promotion of virtue.

The committees of zealous young men represent the latest step in a relentless assertion of power by Shiite Muslim clerics since the fall of President Saddam Hussein. And they are causing distress among more secular Iraqi Muslims, both Shiite and Sunni, not to mention the small Christian community.

Long persecuted by Hussein, Shiite Muslims are celebrating their newfound freedom and leading the efforts to remove and punish figures still in place from the old regime. But some clerics have also felt emboldened to fill the void in authority--actively expanding their clout at a time of no government, no universally recognized laws and no court system.

It remains to be seen whether their efforts to put an Islamic stamp on Iraqi society will pose a direct challenge to U.S. authority in Iraq. But the Shiite militants clearly want the Americans out and are working against the U.S. plan to establish a secular democracy in Iraq.

Already, the Shiites have taken over hospitals and libraries, opened Islamic courts, provided administrative documents to the public and posted codes of behavior at schools. In some cases they are accused of abducting people linked to the Hussein regime, confiscating property and demanding money from businessmen.

The Shiites show a wary disdain of the U.S. troops occupying Baghdad-- cooperating when necessary but generally giving them a wide berth. Operating under the U.S. radar, several rival clerical parties working under the loose rubric of the Hawza seminary in Najaf are letting people know that what had been legal may no longer be tolerated.

At Friday prayers in Saddam City--which is now commonly called Sadr in honor of a cleric killed by Hussein's regime--the prayer leader praised the anti-vice volunteers.

"Are people free to do what they want? Are they free to say what they want?" shouted the prayer leader, Sheik Khadim Abadi Nasseri. The committees against vice, he said, "will fight debauchery in order to create an ideal society and to get rid of the wrongdoers."

"No, no to debauchery!" the crowd answered.

But even Nasseri appeared to acknowledge excesses by some of the committees, and he warned his followers not to "take advantage of their mission for personal gain."

"Do not touch the property of those who were with Saddam," he instructed. "Do not act against anyone unless certain that they were with Saddam and had committed crimes."

Despite such admonishments, Omar Saad Naji Azawi, the 24-year-old nephew of Hussein's education minister, said he knew someone might come seeking reprisals against his family for the regime's tyranny.

When they did, he had no time to reach for the Kalashnikov automatic rifle he had stashed by the couch in his parents' suburban Baghdad home. His assailants broke down the doors, grabbed Azawi and a cousin and bundled them, tied up and blindfolded, into a pickup truck, he said. Over the next 24 hours, he said, the two cousins were beaten and interrogated.

"An imam, a cleric in his 40s, was leading them," Azawi said. "They were calling him Sayyed Mustafir."

Finally, the cleric named Mustafir showed up and said Azawi would be released. The following morning, Azawi said, they left him in a street near his neighborhood with the parting words, "We'll get you again."

Against a backdrop of lawlessness, however, Shiite clerics are setting up the rudiments of government. In the courtyard of the Hikma mosque in Sadr City, Sheik Abbas Rubaii holds court, literally. He has been appointed the judge for this area by fellow clerics, and his mornings are filled adjudicating dozens of cases through Islamic law.

Inside the mosque is a timeless scene: around the large open room, small knots of men crouch on the carpets next to the sheik in his long gray robe and white turban. The people whisper their problems, plead their concerns. The sheik listens intently and then dispenses his opinions. On the wall are pictures of Sadr and the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Despite the activity, the inside of the mosque is quiet and peaceful. Only the syncopation of the more than 30 ceiling fans moves the air.

Rubaii-- in the portico outside, near a blue-tiled basin--is dressed in a white shirt and has a dark bump on his forehead from repeatedly bowing to the ground in prayer. He explains that he has judged all kinds of cases, from robberies to killings to disputes over real estate. When he issues a decision, obedience is voluntary, he emphasizes, but the community here recognizes his authority and is willing to exert peer pressure to enforce it.

In the absence of any functioning judiciary in the country, Rubaii is the only judge many people can find. Even Christians and Sunni Muslims have come to him to solve disputes, notes one mosque official.

Another sheik, Halim Fatlawi, finally pulls himself away from his supplicants to meet with a reporter. He is 35 years old and slightly pudgy. On his wrists he shows marks from when he and a group of clerics were detained by U.S. soldiers one night after their car was found with weapons (for self-defense, he says). The Americans treated them cruelly, he said, making them kneel all night with their hands tied behind them. The GIs, he said, were unaware that the clerics arrested were the new Shiite leaders in Sadr City.

Fatlawi chafes at the U.S. presence in Iraq, and he defends the Shiite vice committees' campaign against "bad" movies, alcohol and women who don't wear the traditional head covering called the hejab. In his view, the U.S. troops should go home. Or, if they stay, they should join the clerics in the fight against immorality.

"The American government should ask these people not to harm the society by doing such things," he said.

Told that not everyone would agree with his definitions of morality, Fatlawi insisted that every major religion bans alcohol, obscenity and permissive dress for women. Christians who think that they can drink alcohol must be reading erroneous versions of the Bible, he said. The Koran should be the arbiter for all disputes anyway, he argued.

"For us, Islam finalizes all religions on Earth," he said.

Such talk frightens people such as 30-year-old Bassem Aboudi, who runs a liquor shop near the Republican Palace where U.S. civil administrator L. Paul Bremer III and his team work. Aboudi said several liquor merchants have been threatened and beaten up in recent weeks by Shiite activists. His neighbor had his shop burned. A pile of broken bottles and debris is still standing by the curb.

"This was not supposed to happen," Aboudi said. "We wanted freedom."

The neighbor whose shop was burned, Hani Shaya, 35, happens by with his son. The attack came in the middle of the night, he said. Standing inside the burned-out shop, he said he has no money even to repair it, much less replace his stock. He estimated the damage at $8,000.

"There is no government and no police," Shaya said. "They could burn any shop they want. They said they would get any liquor shop or any cinema with non-proper content."

Shaya said that the Shiites were free to have their opinions but that they should not try to impose them, especially on Christians who make up 3% to 4% of the population. "Everyone should have their own culture and traditions," he said.

Since the campaign began, many liquor store owners have removed their signs or kept their iron shutters partially closed, even though their shops were open for business.

Kareem Shata, 45, a merchant in the New Baghdad district, is trying a bit of camouflage.

Shata bought soft drinks and snack foods to sell from his upper shelves, relegating his beer and bottles of whiskey and gin to the lower shelves behind the counter. But he said he will not give in to the committees' pressure by closing down--saying he and other Christians support their families with the business and have been working peacefully with, and serving, their Muslim neighbors for a long time.

"Why should they interfere with our business?" he said of the clerics. "We want peaceful relations between Christians and Muslims, but if this goes on, a lot of Christians are going to leave Iraq."

At the Stars Cinema on Sadoun Street in downtown Baghdad, management was also opting for a lower profile. It has not replaced its billboard-size movie poster over its door since before the war. Cinema manager Suleyman Saadi, sitting in his air-conditioned office as the movie house offered an Egyptian-Lebanese action-comedy for a few customers, said that handbills threatening the cinema have appeared on the street, and for now his business strategy is to "lie low."

"As far as I know, the sheik did not say they would close down all cinemas," he said, referring to a well-publicized fatwa, or decree, by Sheik Mohammed Fartusi. "He was pointing to adult films. But I don't know how he judges these things."

He pointed out that before the war, the Culture Ministry would preview films and cut racy scenes. Once the altered film was approved for screening, no one was allowed to interfere.

"Before it was so safe and if anyone threatened us, we knew whom to call," he said. Now, American troop patrols are too infrequent to afford any protection, he said.

Many women appear to be complying with the hejab edict. But to others, used to the secular policies of the old government, it appeared that the clerics have already gone too far.

"It is a matter of personal freedom, a matter of fundamental belief," said Thayera Zurdi, a Kurdish Shiite woman who was not ashamed to flaunt her freshly hennaed long hair during a shopping excursion in Karada, one of Baghdad's main commercial areas.

"True belief is in the heart, not in the appearance," she said. "They should reflect on themselves first. They don't have any right to attack people They preach ethics, they preach morality, but I think they are the most immoral people here!"

Times staff writer Tyler Marshall and correspondent Raheem Salman in Baghdad contributed to this report.

Original URL: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/iraq/complete/la-fg-shiite1jun01001423,1,3778208.story?coll=la-iraq-complete

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)