Physicians have been beaten for treating female patients. Liquor salesmen have been killed. Even barbers have faced threats for giving haircuts judged too short or too fashionable.
Religion rules the streets of this once cosmopolitan city, where women no longer dare go out uncovered.
“We can’t sing in public anymore,” said Hussin Nimma, a popular singer from the south. “It’s ironic. We thought that with the change of the regime, people would be more open to singing, art and poetry.”
Unmarked cars cruise the streets, carrying armed, plain-clothed enforcers of Islamic law. Who they are or answer to is unclear, but residents believe they are part of a battle for Basra’s soul.
In the spring, Shiite and Sunni Muslim officials were killed in a series of assassinations here, and residents feared their city would fall prey to the kind of sectarian violence ailing the rest of the country.
Instead, conservative Shiite Islamic parties have solidified their grip, fully institutionalizing their power in a city where the Shiite majority had long been persecuted by the Sunni-dominated rule of Saddam Hussein.
Although eager to distance themselves from the militias, Shiite religious parties now control both the streets and the council chambers. And though Basra has not suffered the same level of bombings and assassinations as major cities to the north, the trade-off for law and order appears to be a crackdown on social practices and mores that were permissible under the secular, if repressive, regime of Hussein.
In a sign of Basra’s strategic and symbolic importance, Abdelaziz Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a leading Shiite party, visited the city this month. Thousands of residents watched as the former commander of SCIRI’s paramilitary force released 18 white doves representing peace.
But peace in Basra, Iraq’s second most populous city, has come at a cost.
A few weeks ago, the Basra police chief acknowledged that he’d lost control of his 13,000-strong force to Shiite militiamen who joined up. He was removed from his job. His replacement is rumored to be Lt. Col. Salam Badran, who is affiliated with SCIRI.
Some residents believe many members of the SCIRI-affiliated paramilitary force, the Badr Brigade, have signed on to the Basra police force, and that brigade members give first loyalty to the party.
“The militias are more powerful than the police,” said Saba Shedar, a goldsmith. The man who brings home a bottle of liquor or the woman without a veil both risk beatings, he said. Merchants who kept their shops open well into the night now close at sunset out of fear.
“This is the democracy of 2005,” Shedar said. “We expected improvement, but now there’s no freedom in the streets for the women. People are afraid.”
The militiamen carry out political assassinations and dole out punishment for alleged religious infractions, residents say.
Local SCIRI officials deny any participation in the clandestine killings and emphasize their party’s involvement in the political process. The Badr militia’s most important job is setting an example of virtuous conduct, said Furat Sharza, a SCIRI representative.
“Badr people can educate others,” Sharza said. “The role of Badr in Basra -- whether in security or other area -- is big, vital.”
National Shiite leaders have said militias would not be disbanded, affronting Sunnis who believe they are targets of vengeance by Shiites who were brutally repressed under Hussein’s Sunni-run regime.
In restaurants, people now talk of the trade-off of militia influence.
“Security is good in part because the militia is effective,” said Saad Hussein, a visitor from Baghdad. “You must give them a power to fight the terrorists, but it has to be a limited power. If it’s unlimited, they’ll use it against the society. It’s a difficult balance.”
A local businessman who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisal compared the current strict rule to life under Hussein.
“The same thing is happening now,” he said. “During Saddam, we had the secret police. Now it’s coming again. If you say something bad, they shoot you in the night.”
Although you need a strong police force, he said, “they have to be for the government, not for the political parties.”
On the Basra provincial council, 35 of the 41 members are affiliated with Islamic Shiite groups. The governor is a member of a local political party connected to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr. Stickers and posters of the cleric dominate the walls inside the provincial government building.
Just a few months ago, militiamen loyal to Sadr beat students at a picnic in Andalus Park, allegedly because men and women were singing and dancing together. Police stood and watched.
Sadr’s Mahdi militia clashed with troops of the U.S.-led coalition last year in Basra, Baghdad and in the holy city of Najaf. But Sadr has since agreed to disarm the militia, reportedly to reinvent himself as a mainstream politician.
“We don’t have any kind of relationship with [the militias] or with the hands that are moving them,” said Abu Zehra Mayahi, a Sadr representative. “We have good relations with other groups. Political representation on the council includes Christians, Sunnis, Shiites.”
Sabah Sudani, the deputy director of the Basra Chamber of Commerce, has no quarrels with the militias. After all, he said, there’s little foreign investment without security.
While the ouster of Hussein brought optimism to Basra, residents complain that even with good security there has been little foreign investment and few public projects to improve the city’s infrastructure and create jobs.
That may soon change. Iraqi Airways began flying this month between Baghdad and Basra, connecting businessmen in the capital with the city that borders Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. About to arrive are United Nations representatives, and with them probably the World Bank and the prospect of international investment.
Despite the increasing prohibitions on such activities as drinking and singing, tourists will also come to the city, Sudani predicted.
The view from the edge of the Shatt al Arab waterway had a pleasing postcard quality.
Swallows skipped along the water’s surface. Fishermen mended their nets. A knock-off plaster Mickey Mouse -- his nose too pointy -- stood guard at a now-closed carnival, the Ferris wheel frozen. Nearby, a family dried laundry amid the rubble of a former casino.
His own bait overlooked, Abdul Kareem watched his son pull fish from the river.
The river, green like jade, is unchanged but the city is different, Kareem said.
Lovers used to be drawn here at night, he remembered. “Girlfriends, wives -- nobody asked,” he said. “Now, no one dares.”
He sighed at the memory of nightclubs now closed, and girls without veils.
“Freedom,” he said.
Times staff writer Raheem Salman contributed to this report.