BAGHDAD - An Iraqi government decree banning soldiers and police from wearing beards on duty has revived a debate over religious practices in a country where sectarian divisions between Shi'ite and Sunni still fester close to the surface.
Iraq has long allowed police and soldiers to wear beards to a certain length, but in April the interior ministry began ordering that they must be clean-shaven in the name of the "public interest".
Wearing a beard is seen in many parts of the Muslim world as a sign of piety or a symbol of radical Islamism, depending on its style. In Iraq, beards are sometimes associated with militias from both the Sunni and Shi'ite communities, which fought against each other, the security forces and foreign troops after the US-led invasion in 2003.
For police mechanic Abu Haider, the ban quashed his hopes for greater religious freedom after Saddam Hussein was deposed.
"When I saw the letter saying the ministry won't allow us to wear beards, I was resentful," he said in Basra, a Shi'ite stronghold.
Iraq's Shi'ite majority was oppressed and their religious activities banned under Saddam's mostly secular rule as the Sunni dictator sought to maintain tight control under his Baath organization's one-party rule.
"It is interference in the personal freedoms we started to taste after the toppling of the regime," Haider said.
The issue is sensitive across the Middle East, where Sunni Salafists, wearing the heavy beards many people associate with hardline Islamists, have made gains in the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolutions in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt.Treading carefully
In Iraq, the need to tread carefully is particularly acute.
The country is less religiously conservative than many of its neighbors, such as Sunni Saudi Arabia and predominately Shi'ite Iran, mainly because its religious, ethnic and sectarian mix makes it difficult to impose one-size-fits-all strictures.
But with Saddam's departure, hardline Islamic political parties on both sides of the divide sought to impose more strict interpretations of religion on Iraqi life and politics.
In the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, illegal armed Shi'ite militias and Sunni Islamists ruled many parts of Baghdad and enforced a strict religious conservatism. Militia leaders and insurgent chieftains fro m both sects we re often seen wearing beards associated with their beliefs.
Women - Christians as well as both Sunnis and Shi'ites - were forced to wear the traditional head-covering, or hijab, to ward off suspicion, and barber shops and beauty salons were closed or threatened just for showing pictures of women without it.
The worst of the sectarian violence is now past, but many Iraqis are still hesitant to express themselves in ways that draw the attention of those with more religiously conservative attitudes.
Although women often go without the hijab in Baghdad, they wear scarves in areas that are more mixed or more conservative.
Spas, hair-dressing salons and even gyms for women are opening up in some Baghdad neighbourhoods where extremist militias once enforced strict dress codes with the gun. But in recent months posters have appeared around a Shi'ite shrine urging woman to reject Western-style clothes and wear the hijab.Competing forces
The responses to the beard order shows the competing forces at play.
Many Iraqis believe a well-dressed, cleanly shaven security force will show soldiers and police officers are free of any political and religious affiliation.
"Having a beard can give the impression that security forces are connected to a religious party, or have political leanings, and that we don't want for our security men," said Hamid Mutlaq, a member of parliament's security committee and a leader in the secularist but mainly Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc.
But Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shi'ite cleric whose militia once fought American troops but who now forms part of a coalition government of Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds, called the order a "sin" and a religious offense.
One group of Iraqi armed forces officers are sending a written complaint to the government, arguing their personal freedoms have been violated by the order.
"Why such restrictions? Having a beard doesn't harm anyone," said Hadi Ghali Awad, a policeman. "It is also a part of our individual freedoms and also part of Islamic teachings."
The comments point up a simmering undercurrent of religious conservatism. While the sectarian slaughter that killed tens of thousands every year has largely stopped, insurgents still stage attacks, especially Sunnis striking against police. Shi'ite militias are still making threats, too.
Earlier this year, Shi'ite militants killed at least 14 youths in what appeared to be a campaign against wearing Western punk-style clothing and haircuts. Nightclubs and stores selling alcohol have been bombed.
The interior ministry earlier this year labelled the punk-ish "Emo" teen subculture as "satanism" and ordered the police to stamp it out, and Baghdad provincial council has also routinely shuttered some bars and liquor stores.
Most Baghdad residents remain more concerned with jobs and blackouts, however.
"Did we solve our country's problems like corruption, basic services, unemployment?" asked Haider Flaih, 29, a policeman and also a barber in the capital's poor Shi'ite district Sadr city.
"No. Instead we keep ourselves busy worrying about beards and scarves."
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