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
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.