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One evening in June, residents held an exhibit of homemade crafts to raise money for poor families. Men and women mingled as music played over a stereo system.
The United States and other Western powers support the Syrian National Nike Roshe Run Tiffany Blue
Coalition, a group of opposition figures based in Cairo. But the coalition has very little influence on the ground in Syria, so locals are increasingly turning to the Islamists as their best alternative to chaos.
The boys kept quiet until the man pulled away, and then started talking about how life has changed in the city of around 250,000 people since the Islamists planted their flag at the former governor's nearby offices.
Reema Ajaji, a veiled women who helped organise the event, said the media had unfairly maligned Jabhat al Nusra. "They're called terrorists, and we don't accept this," she said. "They're our sons. Us and them, we're one thing. They defend us, and we defend them."
"After the hell of the regime, we consider this an excellent situation," Jaber said. "Yes, there's a security vacuum, there's chaos, and sometimes there are disputes. But it's much better than before."
"From the very beginning we wanted to create justice and security, things like distributing bread. This was a founding idea," said Abu Muhammed al Husseini, the 30 year old head of Ahrar al Sham's political office in Raqqa.
"It's in everyone's interests to resolve these differences," Jaber said. After the rebels took Raqqa, some residents held protests to demand a civilian state. Others, siding with Jabhat al Nusra, called for an Islamic government. But since then, they have agreed to hold protests calling only for Assad's downfall.
By Oliver Holmes and Alexander Dziadosz
"Painting is forbidden here," one fighter said. The graffiti was too close to the group's headquarters. One of the boys made a brief, almost inaudible protest.
A white Mitsubishi pulled up and a man in camouflage trousers and a black balaclava jumped out and demanded that the journalists identify themselves. He was from the Islamic State of Iraq, he said, the Iraqi wing of al Qaeda linked to an Islamist group fighting in Syria called Jabhat al Nusra.
RAQQA, Syria, June 20 (Reuters) The Syrian boys looked edgy and awkward. Three months ago their town, the eastern desert city of Raqqa, had fallen to rebel fighters trying to overthrow President Bashar al Assad's government. Now the four boys clad in tight jeans and bright T shirts were whitewashing a wall to prepare it for revolutionary graffiti.
The encounter captures an important shift underway in rebel held Syria. Using a mix of intimidation and organisation, alliances of Islamist brigades are filling the vacuum in areas where Assad's army has withdrawn and more secular rebels have failed to provide order, a 10 day visit to rebel held Syria by Reuters journalists showed.
"They want an Islamic state, but most of us want a civilian state," the boy said. "We're afraid they're going to try to rule by force."
"We're sorry," the fighter said. "But painting is forbidden." His comrade stroked his long beard and said: "We are not terrorists. Don't be afraid of us. Bashar is the terrorist."
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She waved around the room, indicating the women in brightly coloured headscarves and dresses, some unveiled. "We dress as we want. Do you see these girls?" she said. "Everyone is free to choose." If Jabhat al Nusra had wanted to impose Roshes Women Galaxy
"I'm worried about something bigger than hijab or niqab," she said, referring to the Islamic headscarf and the fuller veil, which covers the face. The important thing now, Janabe said, was "liberation and freedom. Real freedom."
How Syria's Islamists govern with guile and guns
Ahmed Jaber, a 22 year old chemistry student and member of the student union, said some 80 percent of students were attending classes and exams were going ahead. Life in Raqqa had improved over the past few months, he said, although there were disputes between Islamist brigades and more secular units.
Ask anyone in Raqqa who runs the town, and they'll usually tell you it's Ahrar al Sham, an umbrella group of conservative Islamist factions which has taken the most active interest among fighting groups in the problems of civilian administration.
The group, which works closely with Jabhat al Nusra, has taken to calling itself a "haraka," or "movement," rather than a "liwa," or "brigade." The point, members say, is to make clear the struggle for Syria is not just about waging war.
their law on people, they would have shut down the exhibition, Ajaji said.
The Islamist groups include al Qaeda affiliates and more moderate partners, so the nature of their rule is complex. They administer utilities, run bakeries and, in a town near Raqqa, operate a hydroelectric dam. They are also setting up courts and imposing punishments on those judged transgressors.
So far the Islamists have won sympathy from many residents in Raqqa including those who oppose their vision of a narrow moral code and an Islamic caliphate with their apparent restraint.
Islamist groups such as Jabhat al Nusra and Ahrar al Sham aim to create an Islamic mini state in rebel held territory, and Jabhat al Nusra ultimately envisions a wider Islamic caliphate. and European security officials say Jabhat al Nusra is being financed by wealthy families from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Syrian Islamist rebels say foreign fighters bring in money and that Syrian expats and Gulf based individuals who want to overthrow Assad are helping them. Members of Ahrar al Sham, which has fewer foreign fighters than Jabhat al Nusra, told Reuters that they make money through business ventures and by taking over banks.
Other residents pointed to the university, which shut for about a month after rebels took the city but is now operating more or less normally. Inside the gated campus, young men and women chatted in the hallways and shared meals in the packed cafeteria. Armed groups are not allowed to enter.
round the corner. This time two men, both in balaclavas and holding Kalashnikov assault rifles, stepped out.
Selwa al Janabe, a veiled 27 year old student, said the Islamists' ideology was beside the point at least for now.
Mohammed Shaib, a 26 year old member of a secular activist group, said he was sceptical of the Islamists but saw no alternative for now. "Right now we're working under the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend," he said.
Billboards put up by Jabhat al Nusra show a figure in full veil and tell women "you are like a pearl in your chastity." Yet unveiled women can still walk openly on Raqqa's streets and one resident said he had no problem getting whiskey, as long as he drank it in private.
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