BAGHDAD, Iraq – Umm Ali says militants killed her son last month for the most unlikely of reasons: He trims men's beards.
In Baghdad's Dora neighborhood, residents say Sunni Muslim extremists (search) have made barbers the new hunted, accusing them of violating a strict reading of Islamic teachings that say men should keep their beards long.
Some extremists also consider Western-style haircuts an offensive symbol of the hated, secularized culture of Europe and the United States.
To them, sporting a clipped beard or a modern haircut is an infraction worthy of death.
Black banners mourning the dead were strung up in the neighborhood as the unwitting violators fell one after another to the militants' harsh brand of justice. In one month alone, five barbers were shot dead, residents said.
"He was a haircutter. He only cuts hair," Umm Ali said of her son, Sadiq Abdul Hussein. "He was handsome," she said, gazing at a photo of him.
Abdul Hussein was killed after he shrugged off a threat to stop shaving men's beards or lose his life.
A black mourning banner said only that he died due to a "regrettable incident."
Dora's streets are a battleground for rebels fighting U.S. and Iraqi forces. Drive-by shootings targeting government officials are frequent. It's a symbol of the chaos that has followed Saddam Hussein's ouster nearly two years ago.
Masked, gun-totting militants freely roam its streets, issuing orders and threats and meting out punishment to those who challenge them.
Wesam Noori, a 19-year-old art student, is careful to keep his long hair tucked under a hat.
"We are trying to hide our hair under baseball caps or ski hats," he said.
Iraqi Christians have also been targeted here by insurgents who consider them close to American and other foreign occupiers because they share the same religion. Four churches have been attacked in Dora in deadly car bombings.
Islamic militants have also publicly flogged and killed women's hairdressers in several places throughout Iraq.
On Jan. 27, Sadiq Abdul Hussein was cutting a customer's hair when a tall man with a scarf wrapped around his face walked through the door. He opened fire with an assault rifle, killing Abdul Hussein and wounding his customer, Imad Hammad, a 26-year-old engineer.
"I saw the flash from the gun's muzzle and after that I passed out," said Imad, who was shot in the belly.
Imad's father, Hamad al-Dulaimi blamed foreigners for the killings and said they sought to create turmoil here.
"Those Arab extremists are butchering our sons simply to create a disturbance," he said. "We will not be stopped by this sedition."
As if to illustrate his promise that life here couldn't be stopped by violence, a tranquil street scene unfolded on a recent afternoon. Barefoot children kicked around a dented Pepsi can. Mothers sat on front stoops, chatting and gesturing with hands decorated with traditional green tattoos.
But Ali Hussein, a 25-year-old barber who owns a salon in Dora, says the threat is real enough to threaten his livelihood.
Like other barbers, he's gotten the flyers from militants bearing their instructions for how to cut hair and promising death for those who violate the rules.
"They are even forbidding us to hang posters showing the most recent haircuts," Hussein said.
He now cuts customers' hair in secret inside his house.
"I don't want to be killed, but I don't want to be broke either," he said.