BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) - Women in Iraq's southern city of Basra are living in fear. More than 40 have been killed and their bodies dumped in the streets in the past five months for behavior deemed un-Islamic, the city's police chief says.
A warning scrawled in red on a wall threatens any woman who wears makeup or appears in public without an Islamic headscarf with dire punishment.
"Whoever disobeys will be punished. God is our witness that we have conveyed this message," it says.
Women in the Shi'ite city are convinced hardline Islamic militants are behind the killings and say they fear going out without a headscarf.
"Some women were killed with their children," Basra police chief, Major-General Abdul-Jalil Khalaf, told Reuters. "One with a six-year-old child, another with an 11-year-old."
Khalaf, who was sent to Iraq's second-largest city in June with a mandate to get tough on criminals, said he did not know who the perpetrators were but vowed to catch them.
Rita Anwar, a 27-year-old Christian, said she was thinking of leaving Basra, or even Iraq, altogether.
"You would not believe that I also wear the headscarf sometimes. It is terrifying to read this graffiti in red threatening murder," she said.
During the long rule of Saddam Hussein, who suppressed Islamists, Iraqi women in urban areas enjoyed some of the most casual dress codes in the Middle East.
Conservative Islamist influences have spread since the U.S.-led invasion removed Saddam in 2003. This has led to stricter interpretations of Islam in many parts of Iraq.
Police in Basra showed Reuters pictures of women whose bodies were found with notes attached, accusing them of adultery and other "honor crimes."
One photo was of Hayat Jassem, 45, found dead with two gunshot wounds in the stomach. Another was of an unidentified woman in her 30s who was found dead and blindfolded.
"The relatives of those killed never report these crimes because they fear scandals or because they fear the threats of those killers," said Khalaf, sitting behind a desk against a backdrop of two large Iraqi flags.
A group of tribal Shi'ite leaders told Reuters in October that Shi'ite Islamist political parties were imposing strict Islamic rules in southern provinces and using their armed followers to create a state of fear.
The sheikhs, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the conservative attitudes meant that only religious music was now allowed to be played in public places and dancing was forbidden, as was drinking alcohol.
Basra itself has witnessed a turf war between rival Shi'ite groups, including supporters of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army militia, the powerful Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, and the smaller Fadhila party which controls the governorate.
Hareth al-Athari, an official from Sadr's political movement in Basra, said the movement opposed killing women for wearing un-Islamic attire.
"This is a hideous crime," said the bearded cleric, wearing a black turban and black robe. He said the role of his movement's members was to educate people through written statements or face-to-face talks.
However, several women interviewed by Reuters said Islamic militants -- they did not say who -- were intimidating them, forcing them to cover their hair and bodies.
"A party official who is also a university student came to me and said female students should not attend exams without wearing the headscarves," said one student, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals.
"He told me 'God willing there won't be any girl left in the university without wearing a headscarf'."
Khalaf, who has won praise from coalition forces for his efforts to clean up Basra, said investigations were still under way to find those behind the killing of women in the city.
He said assassinations aimed against other groups, such as university professors, had dropped. "Only a few professors (have been killed). But I do not accept even if it was just one," he said.
Asked who could be behind the killing of women, Athari said: "We cannot accuse anybody. But I can say that these gangs are linked to international intelligence agencies."
"Or they are linked to movements that want to accuse the Sadrist trend of this," he said.
Writing by Alaa Shahine, Editing by Dean Yates and Andrew Dobbie