Shi'ite tribal leaders in Iraq say Islamism on rise

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BAGHDAD, Oct 16 (Reuters) Shi'ite Islamist political parties are imposing strict Islamic rules in the oil-producing southern provinces of Iraq and using their armed wings to create a state of fear, a group of tribal Shi'ite leaders said.

The four tribal leaders approached Reuters on condition of anonymity, fearing assassination if their names or even their home provinces were made public.

''Fear rules the streets now,'' said one of the sheikhs. ''We cannot speak our minds, people are not allowed to oppose them.

They would immediately disappear or get killed. The evidence of that is I am talking about it but cannot use my name.'' The fear is not unfounded -- two provincial governors and a police chief were blown up by roadside bombs in August, apparent victims of infighting between the Shi'ite parties for political dominance in the region, source of most of Iraq's oil wealth.

Aides to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the reclusive religious leader of Iraq's Shi'ites, have also been killed.

The sheikhs said the conservative religious attitudes meant only religious music was now allowed to be played in public places and dancing was forbidden, as was drinking alcohol. Women were also harassed for wearing clothing deemed inappropriate.

Photographs of secular political leaders like former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi could not be displayed in shops and other public areas.

Street committees that were set up to protect neighbourhoods from al Qaeda attacks were being misused to spy on residents and report infractions to the militias and the police, they said.

''The people of the south are religious, we are believers, but at the same time we like to live our lives and we like freedom,'' said one sheikh.

The Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) and the movement of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr are the dominant political forces in the Shi'ite provinces. Both have links to neighbouring Iran and believe Iraq should be governed according to Islamic principles.

SIIC controls most of the governors in the south, and its armed wing, the Badr Organisation, has many members in the police force. Sadr's powerful Mehdi Army militia has fought fierce battles with police loyal to the Badr Organisation.

SIIC and the Sadrists saw their rise to power cemented by the December 2005 elections which brought the Islamist Shi'ite Alliance to power. The Sadrists have since pulled out of the Alliance and the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, leader of the smaller Islamist Dawa party.

WASHINGTON BLAMED The growing strength of the parties in the south has weakened some secular tribal leaders and excluded them from power structures, a source of patronage and revenues.

''Some say the Shi'ites are lucky because they are now ruling Iraq, but that is wrong. It is the Islamist Shi'ites who are ruling Iraq. Their victory was a curse for us,'' said one sheikh.

The sheikhs blamed Washington for giving Shi'ite Islamists a free hand in the south. US forces are concentrated to the north, focused mainly on Sunni Islamist al Qaeda and other Sunni Arab militants and so-called rogue Mehdi Army groups.

Washington has thrown its weight behind Baghdad's Islamist- led government despite misgivings about its failure to push ahead with national reconciliation and the close ties between some parties and Iran, the United States' long-time foe.

SIIC and the Sadrists are seen by the sheikhs as importing a conservative brand of Shi'ism from neighbouring Iran, which U.S.

officials accuse of arming Shi'ite militias to use as proxies to enforce their influence in the south.

''We are suffering from two occupations -- America and Iran.

We have told American officials this and we have met some of them, but they are not listening to us,'' one sheikh complained.

Some tribes were talking about taking up arms against the Islamist parties, but the tribal leaders said they feared this would unleash a bloodbath that would destabilise the south.

''The tribes do not want violence ... but at the same time we want to see a change that preserves the rights of all Iraqis, so that we are really free,'' said one sheikh.

REUTERS GL RN1824

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