BAGHDAD // As a devout young Shiite Muslim living in the southern city of Nasariyah, Abdul Rahim al Kadi was taught a ritual whereby he would flay his back with chains until the blood ran. His friends would carry out the same ritual, one designed to let them share in the suffering of Imam Hussein, a revered figure for Shiites who was killed in Kerbala, also in southern Iraq, more than 1,000 years ago.
Such self-flagellation is far from uncommon here and, although frowned upon by many in the Shiite community, including leading clerics, it is seen as a largely harmless symbol of personal commitment. For Mr al Kadi's circle of friends, however, the practice came to symbolise just how far Iraqi society had fallen. They would contrast their religious devotion with what they viewed as increasing immorality and western-style decadence.
The outraged men, aged in their 20s, vowed to take their commitment to another level, deciding that if Iraq was abandoning a strict Islamic morality, they would have to enforce it. And so, last year, they joined a secretive fundamentalist organisation, the Suyuf al Haq, or Swords of Righteousness. By this summer the group had come to patrol the city of Nasariyah, the capital of Dhi Qar province, 370km south of Baghdad, imposing their strict moral codes and threatening, beating and possibly even killing those who refused to follow their edicts.
"We saw more people drinking alcohol, there was more and more prostitution, corruption, society was being destroyed," said Mr al Kadi, 26. "One day four of my friends came and told me they had joined a group that would make the situation better. It was called Suyuf al Haq, they wanted me to come along with them, to help clean the community." That conversation, early this year, was the first time Mr al Kadi had heard of the group. As his friends were trying to recruit him, he asked what they planned to do, and their answer alarmed him.
"They talked about prostitution, drinking and said these things would kill society," he recalled. "They said, 'we have to kill with our hands before it kills us, we have to make the community clean once again'." Mr al Kadi declined the offer to join but had no doubt his friends, whom he declined to name, were serious. Soon the group's black-clad members started appearing on the streets at night, their faces covered as they patrolled. Sometimes, according to reports, they carried swords.
Residents said the vigilantes would beat anyone they found drinking, along with women they believed to be having sex outside marriage. Listening to music and using the internet was also something they scorned as against Islamic laws. By June, the group's reputation was such that people in Nasariyah, long considered calm and secure, would stay in at night rather than risk a confrontation. Even that was no guarantee of protection, however, according to Sabah al Deyawi, a city resident who claims the group beheaded three of his neighbours for drinking alcohol.
"In the last year and a half more and more people were drinking alcohol here and the family next door to me was always drunk," he said. "The father and his two sons, they'd bother the whole neighbourhood, making noise and having arguments in the middle of the night. "One day, it was a few months ago, I woke up and we found all three of them had been beheaded, in the Islamic style, they'd had their heads chopped off just like al Qa'eda does."
Mr al Kadi, worried about the violent zeal of his friends in the Swords of Righteousness, was among those who began staying in after dark. "I stopped going to the internet cafe when they said that the internet was against Islam," he said. "I didn't want them to see me there. They were against anything they thought was immoral, they hated satellite television because of all the pornographic channels.
"They said girls in Nasariyah were all having sex with lots of different men, and that everyone was watching pornography on the television." The police deny the group was behind any killings. Last week, security forces arrested 24 men on suspicion of being members of the organisation, and 10 of them are to be charged under anti-terrorism laws, which can carry a death sentence. Officials in Nasariyah insist the matter is now closed, saying the group was an aberration and never posed a serious challenge to community safety. Those assurances are viewed with suspicion by many in Nasariyah, who say the authorities took too long to react and who doubt all the Swords of Righteousness members have been rounded up.
Of major concern to community religious leaders and intellectuals are the underlying issues. "The situation in Iraq is critical and is a fertile pasture for extremists and their ideologies," said Sheikh Fasil Akhbar, a Shiite cleric at the Imam Ali Husseiniyah in Nasariyah. "These radical ideas spread very quickly among the poor and uneducated." Sheikh Akhbar, who said the Swords of Righteousness had spread "panic", blamed insecurity, poverty and disillusionment with the government, saying they fuelled radicalism among young Shiite men.
"We have extremist ideas coming to us from Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan," he said, all countries with sizeable Shiite communities. Iraqis travel there, or people from these places come through here and these ideas are planted like seeds. "I know that Islam is not about compulsion or murder but not everyone does. These people destroy the face of Islam." Adnan Zeydoun Jayed, a political science professor at Dhi Qar University, said problems ran far deeper than the Swords of Righteousness and would not be solved by the arrests.
"It's not just this group that is the issue, this points to deeper problems we should all be worried about," he said. "This is a consequence of other things, including the political instability, the security situation. "We need to look at how and why this group came about and we need to deal with those factors, otherwise things are going to get worse. We have already seen more kidnappings and killing here in the recent months. It's frightening."