BASRA, Iraq — The bodies of young women began to appear in Basra six weeks ago. First there was a group of three, then two, and then a week ago the corpses of six were found, each riddled with gunshots and left on the street to die in pools of their own blood.
Police say they have no strong leads, but it is an open secret in the port city why they died. They worked as prostitutes and their killers are widely believed to be one of the city’s armed militias who in recent months have become increasingly violent in their campaign to enforce a strict interpretation of the social code of Islam.
The district where the most recently murdered women were discovered is one of the city’s poorest. It is an area where sewage runs beside the pavement, and through the holes in the walls of the surrounding buildings can be seen the thin mattresses and battered pots and pans of those who live inside.
No one wanted to talk about the details of the murders. “I do not want to be killed,” one man said.
But another told how he had been in a house of “belly dancers” recently in order to drink alcohol, itself an illicit activity in Basra, when a dozen masked men broke down the front door.
“They started hitting the girls and shooting against the walls and breaking the furniture,” he said. “They brought boxes of vodka and beer from outside to smash them. One of the girls ran outside and she had stones thrown at her. Everyone was too frightened to help.”
Basra long opposed Saddam Hussein and suffered massacres under his dictatorship. It welcomed liberation by the British two years ago.
It has been spared the worst of the insurgency raging in Iraq’s central provinces, cocooned by geographical distance and its majority Shi’ite population. For a visitor from Baghdad the contrast is striking: there are none of the blast walls that surround the capital’s government buildings and at night the markets and streets throng with people.
But the calm has come at a price and offers a lesson to strategists in western capitals that bringing democracy to the Middle East can easily usher into power religious forces at odds with the West.
In January’s historic Iraq election a majority of religion-inspired leaders were elected in Basra, but they have struck a deal with the militias that have been influential since 2003 but now effectively have free rein in the city.
The militias help impose order and warn of any Sunni infiltrators, but only while working to transform the city into a mini-theocracy reminiscent of that found across the Shatt al Arab waterway in Iran.
Pictures of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 Iranian revolution, have become a common sight on street corners. Shops selling musical instruments have been bombed after warnings that musicians were the “servants of Satan.”
Stores selling DVDs report that groups of men inspect their wares to ensure it contains no items considered too provocative.
The British, who are responsible for the security of the sector, have refused to intervene, saying it is a domestic political and law and order issue.