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Last Updated: Monday, 9 June, 2003, 12:12 GMT 13:12 UK
Iraqis fear rise of clerics
The BBC's Caroline Hawley
By Caroline Hawley
BBC correspondent in Baghdad

Muslim clerics in Iraq have been taking advantage of the political vacuum left by Saddam Hussein to try to impose their own strict version of Islam.

A woman in traditional Muslim robes passes party dresses in Hindia, Iraq
Some religious leaders want women to cover up
Liquor stores have been attacked and their owners threatened. Women have been told to wear the veil.

And it is not just Iraq's small Christian community that is now worried about its way of life.

One Christian off-licence seller is still selling, but he does not know for how much longer.

Over the past few weeks, several alcohol shops in Baghdad have been attacked.

At least one has been firebombed, another had a rocket-propelled grenade shot through the front window.

Women who don't wear the veil won't be served when they go shopping; taxis won't pick them up and they might have eggs and rotten tomatoes thrown at them
Sheikh Mohammed Fartusi

"We are so frightened," the seller says. "They say maybe they will hurt us."

"They" are the radical Shia clerics and the off-licence owner, who is too scared to give his name, is terrified that both his life and his livelihood could now be at risk.

But selling alcohol feeds his wife and two children and it is the only work he knows.

"It's our job and we believe in God, so we'll stay in our jobs and we need help. Will anyone hear our voice?" he asks.


But the loudest voice is that of Sheikh Mohammed Fartusi, a 31-year-old cleric based in eastern Baghdad who has declared war on alcohol sellers.

Shia clerics on protest march
Shia clerics have new political power after years of repression

He also wants all women, even Christians, to wear the veil, though he says Muslims will be punished more than others.

"Women who don't wear the veil won't be served when they go shopping; taxis won't pick them up and they might have eggs and rotten tomatoes thrown at them," he says.

"As far as the sellers of alcohol, they will be forced to stop, if necessary, by bringing their shops crashing down on their heads."

At the Church of the Sacred Heart in central Baghdad, relief at being rid of Saddam Hussein has quickly evaporated.

For many in Iraq's tiny but ancient Christian community, Sheikh Fartusi's threats have caused real anxiety about their collective future. They pray now just to be left in peace.

They want everyone to wear the veil like in Iran and they say make-up is forbidden - but that's not our way
Ipta Sam Jasson,

"If today we wear the veil, tomorrow our church will become a mosque," says Victoria Chalabi. "God forbid, God forbid, God forbid."

Other Iraqis also worry about what will happen to their way of life.

Baghdad has always had one of the most secular societies in the Middle East.

Freedom 'best thing'

At Mustansiriyah University, some of the women wear headscarves, but many do not. Men and women sit talking together on the benches.

Among the unveiled students is Farah Samarai who says that in a post-Saddam Hussein era, she will not be dictated to on anything, including dress.

An Iraqi woman selling newspapers
Many fear that new-found liberties such as a free media may go

"The freedom is the best thing that we have at this time. If I want it, I'll wear it, but when I don't want it, I kind of don't do it."

But there is worry at the Mise beauty parlour in southern Baghdad, run for the past 20 years by Ipta Sam Jasson.

Blow-drying the hair of a bride she has just made up for her wedding, she says the radical Shia clerics are bad news for her business.

"They want everyone to wear the veil like in Iran and they say make-up is forbidden. But that's not our way," she says.

"If this country becomes like Iran, I'll pack up and leave."

Many in the congregation at Baghdad's Church of the Sacred Heart have similar feelings. They are also thinking of leaving the country if the radical clerics get their way.

But it is early days still. The battle for the soul of this country is still being fought, and there are many secular Iraqis who are determined not to lose.


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