Nasiriyah, Iraq (AFP) July 27, 2010
A group of masked, sword-wielding Shiite youths aiming to "promote virtue and fight vice" terrorised a southern Iraqi city from early July until its members were rounded up.
The group, calling itself "Suyuf al-Haq," or "Swords of Righteousness," issued death threats and sometimes beat up those it perceived as engaging in immoral behaviour in areas of Nasiriyah, said a colonel in the police, citing numerous complaints they had received.
Suyuf al-Haq adopted a broad definition of vice, going after people for using or selling drugs or alcohol and for prostitution, but also for having "Western" haircuts, according to Nasiriyah residents.
The group's black-clad members also checked residents' mobile phones and confiscated them if the ringtone was an Arabic or Western song, said the police colonel, who asked not to be identified by name.
Suyuf al-Haq sprung up in early July in the Al-Shuhadah, Arido and Al-Sadr neighbourhoods of central Nasiriyah, said the police chief for Dhi Qar province, where the city is located.
Those areas were former strongholds of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Jaysh al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army), which was expelled from Nasiriyah by the Iraqi military in 2008.
Police arrested members of Suyuf al-Haq on Thursday.
"We arrested 24 suspected members of Suyuf al-Haq. Ten of them, who are the key members, were sent to an anti-terrorism unit," said Dhi Qar police chief Major General Sabah al-Fatlawi.
The 10 "will be tried according to article four of the anti-terrorism law, because they formed a group that has a terrorist ideology and want to take away people's freedom," he said, adding that the other 14 were released on bail.
The group did not carry out any killings, Fatlawi said.
Suspects tried under article four of Iraq's anti-terrorism law can be sentenced to life in prison or death.
The group spread fear "among the young people in my neighbourhood," said Ali Hasoon, 35, a shopowner from Al-Shuhadah.
"We used to go out until very late," he said. "Today, we are stuck at home to avoid the 'people of the sword,'" referring to the vigilante group.
Hasoon said people likened Suyuf al-Haq's aims to those of Al-Qaeda, although the latter is made up of Sunni instead of Shiite Muslims.
Suyuf al-Haq members "try to impose strange orders. It's very extremist," Hasoon said.
Hassanayn Ali, a 20-year-old student from a southern area of Nasiriyah, said that fear of the group has spread beyond the neighbourhoods where it was founded.
Suyuf al-Haq has "done worse things than the (Mahdi Army) militia. They try to fight our freedom," Ali said, adding that "the fear of this group spread all over the province."
Shihab Ahmed, a 32-year-old teacher from the Arido neighbourhood, hoped police had now brought the situation under control, but said he worried Suyuf al-Haq members would go even further.
"They (security forces) have to defeat this group, and find out their intention and their aims, which could destabilise" security in the area, Ahmed said.
"We have passed very difficult days, and security must deal with this subject seriously, and realise the danger."
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