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Iraqi Women Coerced Under the Veil

Almost two months after U.S. President George W. Bush declared major combat in Iraq over, the country is far from secure. American forces have come under almost daily attacks in recent weeks, and intimidation and threats against Iraqis cooperating with the Americans are on the rise. Increasingly, many Iraqi women are coming under pressure to avoid the Americans, and to become more Islamic.

On a dusty street in Baghdad, a woman named Sanaa is desperately looking for help.

She said her sister was wounded in a shooting last week, and her 15-year-old niece was killed. U.S. military officials nearby say they took her sister to a local hospital, but now, no one seems to know where she is, and Sanaa is desperate to find her.

One of the neighborhood boys, Ali, says he saw the attack. He says a man came up carrying a sports bag, asked Sanaa's sister if she was still working for the Americans, and then took out a rifle and began shooting.

Sanaa says she and her sister worked for the American military, and had been warned by a cousin to stop. She says the cousin had followed them around, and she suspects him of the attack.

But a local cleric disputes the assertion that she was shot because she worked for the Americans. He says he heard of the incident, and heard the two sisters were working as prostitutes, and had brought shame on their family, and that could have been the reason for the shooting.

What was really behind the attack is still not clear.

But there have been numerous reports that women are being warned against working for the Americans and pressured to adhere to Islamic tradition and wear the veil. Sanaa says some religious leaders, imams, at local mosques are issuing such warnings.

On the streets of Baghdad, almost all women are wearing at least a head shawl, or hejab. That was not always so. Sanaa says she used to wear western-style clothes, but now she, too, wears a long black cloak and a hejab.

She says aside from pressure from Islamic groups, she has also heard of women and young girls being kidnapped and raped, and she is afraid for herself and for her 13-year-old daughter. She says it is just safer to wear Islamic dress.

Professor Ahmad Hussein Aldabbash, who teaches Islamic law at Baghdad University, is also the imam at the Aldabbash mosque in Baghdad's al-Hurriyah neighborhood. He says he knows of no imam preaching violence against women. But he says women should follow Islamic tradition and wear the veil.

A woman is like a gem, he says. She should be protected and not show herself to just anyone. The Imam says women should wear the veil, but if they do not, violence is not the answer. He says, instead, women should be better educated in the ways of Islam, and be encouraged to dress properly.

Reports of threats against women have caused concern at the United Nations, as well. "One of our UN national staff, she got a threat letter asking her to wear the veil, and if not, she would be killed," said spokeswoman Veronique Taveau. "She got that letter because she is an Iraqi woman. What we have also noticed here in the compound is that some Christian women are now wearing the veil."

Ms. Taveau says the issue has been raised with the U.S.-led civil authorities. The top U.S. civil administrator for Iraq, Paul Bremer, said inciting violence and threatening women will not be allowed.

"We have issued a rule, an order, which makes it against the law to incite political violence, either against coalition forces, or the Iraqi people, and in particular violence against women, on religious basis," Mr. Bremer said.

But for now, as long as crime is rampant in Iraq, and threats and violence are a daily occurrence, many Iraqi women are seeking safety behind the veil.