Islamist vigilantes stalk the streets of Nasiriyah

By Nehal El-Sherif, Shabtai Gold

Nasiriyah, Iraq (dpa) – Simply wearing jeans, listening to pop

       music or having too much fun in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah

       now can can elicit the wrath of self-appointed religious vigilantes.

       The Islamist vigilantes, wearing black hoods to conceal their

       identity, seize phones containing pop music or “immoral” pictures.

       They punish those wearing Western clothes. A trendy haircut can also

       land a youngster in trouble.

       Anonymous and unofficial by nature, it is not clear who backs the

       groups – who give themselves sinister names such as The Sword of

       Righteousness, The Promotion of Virtue, or Men of the Sword.

       These unofficial patrols come out at night and accost people they

       deem to be in violation of strict Islamic rules.

       Around the city, people speak of punishments meted out, ranging

       from warnings and confiscations of items, to the use of swords.

       These clandestine vice squads in the otherwise peaceful city of

       Nasiriyah have sparked fear in the local population.

       “We are more and more concerned, especially us women,” said

       Kawthar Kadhim, a 44-year-old civil servant.

       She says her independence has been lost as she now feels scared to

       go on trips around town unaccompanied.

       “We go home with our husbands after work, and we rarely go

       shopping or to public parks,” Kadhim said.

       For many residents, the new wave of armed vigilantes marks a

       return to more worrisome days. Militias who ran the streets since

       2006 finally disappeared about two years ago as government forces

       took over security.

       A majority Shiite city, which lies around 370 kilometres southeast

       of Baghdad, Nasiriyah was a major battleground in the US-led

       occupation of Iraq in 2003. While militias ruled the roost for

       several years, the city has seen little major armed conflict in

       recent times.

       Some of the restrictions imposed by the vice squads echo those of

       neighbouring Iran, where personal freedoms have been curtailed in the

       name of religious virtue since the Islamic revolution in 1979.

       Police forces have now begun reacting to tip-offs about the masked

       men, and arrested some of those believed to be behind the vigilante


       “Security forces arrested around 44 suspects who belonged to the

       Promotion of Virtue group during three separate raids,” announced

       Sajad Sherhan al-Asadi, head of the security committee on the local

       council of Nasiriyah, recently.

       Seven confessed to belonging to the squads and were sent to the

       interior ministry department that deals with internal terrorism

       suspects, al-Asadi said.

       Struggles between political parties for dominance, compounded by

       the stalemate in central government following inconclusive elections

       in March, have – inevitably – led to conspiracy theories.

       Some whisper that the “virtue squads” are actually meant to endear

       the police to the local population at a time when they are

       increasingly disillusioned with national politics.

       “I think somebody in the city wants to distract us with this

       phenomenon so that we do not think about the delay in the formation

       of the new government,” said Raad al-Zuheiri, aged 41.

       Others contend that the nighttime patrols are a fabrication.

       “Statements by some security officials and political blocs are far

       from reality … promoting such phenomenon is media propaganda,” said

       Hamid al-Ghozi, the local head of a political party close to the

       radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

       Major General Sabah al-Fatlawi, director of the Nasiriyah police,

       said that at least one person recently arrested in connection to

       running a morality patrol was actually connected to the authorities.

       “He is a police officer and led the group with the pretext of

       promoting virtue and prevention of vice,” al-Fatlawi said.