Music and weddings in Basra, for now

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BASRA, Iraq, Apr 30 (Reuters) Last week Haider Lefta took the boards off his shop hiring out musical instruments and session bands for parties, and dusted off a wooden ''oud'' -- the traditional Arabic lute central to much Iraqi music.

The 26-year-old could scarcely contain his joy. He abandoned the business three years ago after Shi'ite Islamist militiamen bombed his shop, then threatened to kill him: music and parties were against Islam, the black-masked gunmen had said.

''I'm so happy. Those extremists bombed my shop three times but now they are gone: I can get back to my work,'' he said.

After clashes with government troops, fighters claiming allegiance to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have retreated from streets they once ruled in the southern oil hub of Basra.

Calm has returned to the streets. Shops and cafes have reopened as the pious young men who for years had been shutting them down -- declaring music ''haram'' (forbidden) and threatening to kill women for not wearing headscarfs -- have vanished.

Basra erupted into violence late in March when Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered a military crackdown on militias who controlled much of the city.

At first the offensive backfired, as government troops met fierce resistance from Sadr's Mehdi Army.

Some troops refused to fight or even defected. Hundreds of people were killed in the ensuing clashes in Basra and other southern Shi'ite towns.

But after Maliki allies met Sadr's aides in Iran, Sadr ordered his fighters off the streets. In the weeks since, government troops backed by US and British special forces and air support wrested control of Basra.

''I used to run a women's fashion shop in the town centre but had to close after death threats,'' said Azhar Abdul-Razzaq, a 40-year-old saleswoman, turned housewife by a militia crackdown on boutiques. ''Now I'm thinking of reopening.'' Tensions could mount again, especially in the run-up to provincial elections in October when oil-rich Basra is likely to be a key battleground.

RISE OF THE SADRISTS The rise of the Sadrist movement shortly after the 2003 U.S.

invasion surprised the American military and many Iraqis.

Blending religious fervour, anti-Americanism and a populist message, Sadr appeals to millions of dispossessed Shi'ites who have felt abandoned by successive Iraqi administrations.

''I defend the Sadr movement because they are nationalists who want to free Iraq from the occupier,'' said Abu Firas, a Sadr supporter. ''Who else has any interest in helping the poor?'' MORE UNI RJ RK0848

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