(An Iraqi soldier stands guard at a checkpoint in central Baquba, about 65 km (40 miles) northeast of Baghdad, July 31, 2008. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani)

An Iraqi government decree banning soldiers and police from wearing beards on duty has revived a debate over religious practices in a country where sectarian divisions between Shi’ite and Sunni still fester close to the surface.

Iraq has long allowed police and soldiers to wear beards to a certain length, but in April the interior ministry began ordering that they must be clean-shaven in the name of the “public interest”.

Wearing a beard is seen in many parts of the Muslim world as a sign of piety or a symbol of radical Islamism, depending on its style. In Iraq, beards are sometimes associated with militias from both the Sunni and Shi’ite communities, which fought against each other, the security forces and foreign troops after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

For police mechanic Abu Haider, the ban quashed his hopes for greater religious freedom after Saddam Hussein was deposed.