By Oliver Poole (Filed: 15/07/2005)The bodies of young women began to appear in Basra six weeks ago.
First there was a group of three, then two, and last week the corpses of six were found, each victim riddled by gunshots and left on the street to die in pools of blood.
The Iraqi police say they have no strong leads. But it is an open secret in the port city why they died.
They worked as prostitutes and their killers are widely believed to be one of the city's armed militias. In recent months they have become increasingly violent in their campaign to enforce a strict interpretation of the social code of Islam.
The district where the latest victims were discovered is one of the city's poorest. Sewage runs beside the pavement and through the holes in the walls of buildings can be seen thin mattresses and battered pots and pans.
No one wanted to talk about the details of the murders. "I do not want to be killed," one man said. But another told how he had been in a house of "belly dancers" recently in order to drink alcohol - an illicit activity in Basra - when a dozen masked men broke down the front door.
"They started hitting the girls and shooting against the walls and breaking the furniture," he said.
"They bought boxes of vodka and beer outside to smash them. One of the girls ran outside and she had stones thrown at her.
"Everyone in the place was too frightened to help."
For years Basra opposed Saddam Hussein and suffered massacres under his dictatorship. It welcomed liberation by the British two years ago.
It has been spared the worst of the insurgency in Iraq's central provinces, cocooned by distance and its majority Shia population.
For a visitor from Baghdad the contrast is striking: there are none of the blast walls that surround the capital's government buildings and at the night the markets and streets throng with people.
But the calm has come at a price and offers an object lesson to strategists in western capitals that bringing democracy to the Middle East can easily usher into power religious forces at odds with the west.
In January's historic Iraq election a majority of religion-inspired leaders were elected in Basra, but they have struck a deal with the militias which have been influential since 2003 and effectively have free rein in the city.
The militias help impose order and warn of any Sunni infiltrators but only while working to transform the city into a miniature theocracy reminiscent of that found across the Shatt al Arab waterway in Iran.
Pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 Iranian revolution, have become a common sight on street corners. Shops selling musical instruments have been bombed after warnings that musicians were the "servants of Satan".
Stores selling DVDs report that groups of men inspect their wares to ensure it contains no items considered too provocative.
Women are approached on the streets and criticised by strangers if they do not wear a headscarf, while parents who allow their daughters to play sports have received envelopes with bullets in them.
The British, who are responsible for the security of the sector, have refused to intervene, saying that it is a domestic matter of political and law and order issues. Political parties have been largely silent.
The city's 41-seat political authority is dominated by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri).
This has close links to the Iranian government, and those loyal to Ayatollah Muhammad Yacoubi, a radical cleric friendly with Moqtada al-Sadr whose Mahdi army staged two uprisings last summer.
The local Sciri leader, Furat al-Shara, said last month that there was no need to enshrine Islamic law in the country's legal code because this was already being done "culturally".
The fact is the largest militias have ties to both these organisations. Sciri's Badr Brigade has hundreds of followers in Basra while the Mahdi army, while remaining underground, remains a potent force.
A number of new smaller groups such as the Vengeance of Allah - blamed on the streets for the prostitute murders - and Master of the Martyrs have emerged in recent months. They carry out their deadly trade in plain clothes, scarves wrapped around their faces.
The police do little. In some cases because of fear, but in others because officers are themselves members of the same militias.
Gen Hassan al-Sade, the chief of police, recently admitted that he had lost control of the majority of his officers because of penetration of the force by members of the militias.
In a blunt assessment of where real power lies, he said: "I trust 25 per cent of my force, no more."