'Good Morning Baghdad': Nightclubs, Corruption and Iraq's New Normalcy

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Life is returning to the streets of Iraq as improved security has meant theater openings, packed restaurants and an emerging middle class. But violence is still an element of daily life and corruption threatens to become debilitating.

Mohammed al-Rahhal wears sideburns, a white suit and a red shirt open to his chest. On stage at a Baghdad nightclub, he sings, dances and taps his boots to the beat of the music. A band is playing behind him, and four young women are swooning at his side -- three thin ones wearing pumps and full-length dresses, and a heavy, slightly clumsier one.

The audience at Khayyam -- named after a Persian poet -- is drinking ice-cold beer, nibbling on Lebanese hors d'oeuvres, and swinging exuberantly to the music. A bouncer is collecting small arms at the entrance. Then a businessman stands up, walks up to the stage, pulls a stack of banknotes out of his pocket and whispers something into the singer's ear.

"Long live the youth of Adhamiyah!", Rahhal bellows into the microphone. Adhamiyah is one of the Sunni districts of Baghdad that, until two years ago, was firmly in the stranglehold of al-Qaida.

"Long live the youth of Madinat al-Sadr!" It's a reference to the eastern Shiite slum that has been the scene of devastating suicide attacks. Cheers erupt. The businessman tosses piles of 1,000-dinar and one-dollar bills into the air. The money is whirled about by the ceiling fans, and it slowly falls to the floor, like confetti.

"This is Iraq!" a Turkmen from Kirkuk yells over the din. "This country will never become a theocracy!" The euphoria escalates into joyful pandemonium. Young men -- Kurds and Arabs, Sunnis, Christians and Shiites -- jump up and dance in front of the stage.

Zest for Life

The first nightclub in Baghdad began welcoming guests a year ago -- the first to open for business since the 1990s, when Saddam Hussein suddenly developed a religious streak after defeat in the first Gulf War in Kuwait and prohibited the serving of alcohol. The conservative Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, of all people, lifted the ban.

Now, after years of violence and death, a zest for life has seized Iraq. On Thursday evenings, endless wedding convoys pull up at the hotel security checkpoints, causing traffic to back up for miles. Once they arrive, 50, sometimes as many as 60 couples tie the knot in mass weddings at establishments with names like the Mansur, the Babil, and the Palestine. Right up until the curfew at midnight, colorful lanterns light up Abu Nuwas Street, a famous riverside promenade.

The carp restaurants in the park along the Tigris, which were deserted during the years of terror, are once again doing a brisk business. So too are the police officers who provide security for the neighborhood, often in return for a bit of cash in hand.

In late June, US troops began their withdrawal, and in January, post-war Iraq is to go to the polls for the third time. The new state is gradually taking shape after a violent birth that cost the lives of nearly 100,000 Iraqis and over 4,000 Americans. It is not the model Arab democracy that former US President George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair once envisioned. Neither is it the Islamic Republic that the mullahs in Tehran would like to see as their neighbor. And it is certainly not the murderous caliphate that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden wanted to establish in Mesopotamia.

An Authoritarian Nationalist

It is a state in which hundreds of people continue to die every month in attacks and gunfights. Al-Qaida has been forced to retreat to the north, where it has been launching an increasing number of assaults in recent weeks. Now that the war between Sunnis and Shiites has ceased, the terrorist organization intends to rekindle the conflict between Arabs and Kurds.

In the south the government is trying to boost oil production, but in June when it opened bidding for eight oil fields, an investor could only be found for one. Iraq is the richest country in the Middle East, after Iran; it has the oil that Syria, Egypt and Turkey don't have; it has the water that is not widely available in the region; and it has an educated elite. But it also has a government that hasn't even begun to exploit this potential.

The result is a contradictory polity that, for both the Iraqis and the rest of the world, will take some time to get used to. It is a police state -- but also one that grants liberties the likes of which have not been seen in living memory. It is an oil superpower riddled by nepotism and corruption, where a handful of parliamentarians are struggling to forge a constitutional state. It is a country whose prime minister, during a mere three and a half years in office, has gone from being a Shiite compromise candidate to an authoritarian nationalist who nonetheless allows for an unusual amount of freedom.

A new, rich upper-class has emerged. During the religious fasting month of Ramadan two years ago, commercial jets flying between Baghdad and Beirut, Amman and Dubai were not even half full. This year's festival, which took place from late August to late September, saw flights booked out well in advance. Iraq's elite went shopping. In the affluent Karrada district of Baghdad where, following the US invasion in 2003, new refrigerators, children's bicycles and kerosene heaters heralded an initial wave of prosperity, car dealerships are now selling Porsches and Jaguars.

'Lining Their Pockets'

A great deal of money is in circulation, but where does it come from? "Corruption was always bad," says former Minister of Telecommunications Juwan Fouad Masum. She says that the upcoming elections in January are spurring politicians and high-ranking officials to ever greater degrees of vice. "No minister or general director knows if he will retain his post after the elections. So they're filling their pockets now."

Masum lives in the Kadissija compound, a residential area guarded by Kurdish elite units, where Saddam's ministers once resided. Four cars are parked in front of her villa and the swimming pool glows blue in the twilight.

"The problem," she says "is the system." When a minister leaves office, the entire staff of the ministry leaves as well, right down to the man who makes the tea. This is a custom which has been revived from the Saddam era. There is rampant cronyism, which also leads to incompetence and corruption. Masum now has a job directing a business consulting firm. She says she would rather work abroad than in her own country.

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