Basra: Shi’ite theocracy bans music

More glowing reports of freedom on the march in Iraq. This from the July 7 New York Times, reprinted the following day in the International Herald Tribune.

Shiite theocracy takes hold in Iraqi oil city
By Edward Wong The New York Times

BASRA, The loudest sounds from musicians’ row these days come from explosions.

Ahmed Ali walked through a shop that had sold musical instruments before it was gutted by a bombing a week earlier, the latest in a series of mysterious attacks in this narrow alley in the past six months, he said. The men here, just a block from the Ministry of Religious Affairs, sell instruments by day and perform at weddings in the evening.

“They say it’s forbidden by Islam,” Ali, 18, said as he went back to his own shop, its shelves stocked with drums. “We’re afraid of everything. I’m afraid of it all. I’m afraid even when I’m talking to you.”

The once-libertine oil port of Basra, 560 kilometers, or 350 miles, south of the capital and far from the insurgency raging in much of Iraq, is steadily being transformed into a mini-theocracy under Shiite rule.

There is perhaps no better indication of the possible flash points in a Shiite-dominated Iraq, because the political parties that hold sway here also wield significant influence in the central government in Baghdad and are backed by the country’s top clerics.

Efforts to impose strict Shiite religious rule across Iraq would almost certainly spur resistance from Sunni Arabs and the more secular Kurds. But here in Basra, the changes have accelerated since the January elections, which enabled religious parties to put more radical politicians into office.

Small parties with names like God’s Vengeance and Master of Martyrs have emerged. They work under the umbrella of more established Shiite groups, but many Iraqis suspect them of being agents of the Iranian government. One of the leading parties was formed in Iran by an Iraqi cleric living in exile during the reign of Saddam Hussein.

The growing ties with Iran are evident. Posters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 Iranian revolution, are plastered along streets and even at the provincial government center.

The Iranian government opened a polling station downtown for Iranian expatriates during elections in their home country in June. The governor also talks eagerly of buying electricity from Iran, given that the U.S.-led effort has failed to provide enough of it.

“The political situation is very confused and very mixed up,” said Saleh Najim, dean of the engineering college at Basra University. “Most of the radical Islamic parties are concentrated in Basra. The people feel very upset about these parties. They are wasting our time.”

See our last post on Iraq.