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

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.

Debilitating Corruption in the New Iraq

Over the past few years, Iraq has risen to become the second-most corrupt country in the world, surpassed only by Somalia on the index of the international non-governmental corruption watchdog Transparency International. Former Minister of Trade Abd al-Falah Sudani, along with his brothers, embezzled so much money from the food rationing program -- known as the Public Distribution System -- that he decided it would be best to flee to Dubai. His plane was already in the air when it was ordered to return to Baghdad, where he was arrested at the airport.

"We have 10 hours of electricity a day, 15 hours of freedom of speech and 24 hours of corruption," as the Kurds say in northern Iraq, where two clans have been pulling the strings for decades. One of these groups is led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

The parliament in Baghdad is actually one of the bodies responsible for investigating such abuses. "Our monthly salary is the equivalent of €6,700 ($10,000)," says Maysoon al-Damluji, a parliamentarian. "In addition, we are each entitled to 30 security personnel with a minimum salary of €300 per month." She doesn't want to malign her colleagues, she adds, but it is highly common for relatives and friends to be placed on the politician's payroll, regardless of whether or not they know anything about security.

'Our Government Is Like a Big Mafia'

By contrast, genuine bodyguards are required to protect the members of the parliamentary anti-corruption and the budget committee, which include men like Sheikh Sabah al-Saadi and women like Shada al-Moussawi. "You don't make any friends when you demonstrate to the national security adviser that he is legally entitled to a staff of 60, but in reality has 273 people on his payroll," says Moussawi. When her committee decided to summon a minister, she received threatening phone calls: "It was an interesting time for me in parliament. I certainly won't run for another term."

Al-Saadi also recounts how he was often threatened with "physical liquidation." "Our government is like a big Mafia," he says. "We uncovered networks that extend through virtually all ministries." His own Shiite party, Fadila (Virtue), is not involved, he claims, because it has no ministers in the cabinet.

Saadi's party has joined the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), one of two coalitions of political forces that -- depending on the election results -- will appoint the next prime minister. A key development will come in January, when the Kurds decide who they prefer -- the Shiite dominated INA or the list of candidates put forward by Prime Minister Maliki. And the Kurds' decision will depend on which alliance is more likely to guarantee them the big prize: the oil city of Kirkuk, which is claimed by both Kurds and Arabs.

"Compared with the conflicts that threaten to erupt following the elections, corruption may actually be a stabilizing factor," says Joost Hiltermann, an analyst for the International Crisis Group. "Corruption keeps people's minds focused on money instead of violence," says Hiltermann.

Religion and Politics Don't Mix

So far in post-Saddam Iraq, the custom has been to include as many political groups as possible in the government. But there have been disadvantages to this approach, foremost among them that it has prevented the emergence of an opposition.

"The model of the national unity government has failed," says Safiya Suhail, a liberal member of parliament. There was a time when the US placed its hopes in politicians like her. When President George W. Bush delivered his State of the Union address to Congress in February 2005, she sat in the audience as a symbol of the new, democratic Iraq.

Suhail entered parliament on the list by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. After serving as an independent for a few years she has now changed camps and gone over to Prime Minister Maliki. She recently appeared as the only woman without a head scarf when he presented his list -- Maliki was one of the first to understand that politics and religion don't mix in Iraq.

His own party was originally called Dawa Islamiya (Islamic Mission). Now he's dropped the adjective, referring to it simply as the Dawa. Other parties have followed Maliki's lead. The competing list no longer calls itself the House of the Shia, but emphasizes instead that a large number of Sunni leaders have joined it. Other groups have gone for ideologically neutral names like The Center or The Constitution or The Qualified. All parties want to avoid coming under suspicion of representing a specific religious movement. Fears are still rife that a civil war could erupt between Sunnis and Shiites, though that seems unlikely at the moment. There is hope that in the new Iraq, old conflicts will be settled in the political arena.

'We've Learned a Great Deal'

In contrast to four years ago, the green flag of the Prophet, half moons and swords no longer dominate election posters. "We've learned a great deal," admits Sheikh Jalaleddin Saghir. He is a Shiite like Maliki, but a fierce rival of his former ally.

What disturbs Saghir about the prime minister is exactly what makes him popular among voters: his impulsiveness and his tendency to govern Iraq as a strongman. "Maliki has put a lot of talent into disappointing his friends and making enemies," says Saghir.

Many in Iraq have felt the brunt -- starting with the Shiite militias in Basra, Kut, Hilla and Madinat al-Sadr, when Maliki staged a decisive crackdown in March 2008. Some of his former coalition partners then complained that the brutality of the operation -- called Charge of the Knights -- was comparable to Saddam's punitive campaigns in the south.

Maliki also doesn't shy away from confronting the Kurds -- he engages their Peshmerga fighters whenever they try to exert their influence beyond their autonomy zone. Individual Sunni tribes, whose so-called "awakening" councils were primarily responsible for driving al-Qaida out of central Iraq, are ignored by Maliki. And finally there is the formerly US-supported People's Mujahedin of Iran, a group that advocates the overthrow of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Maliki ordered government troops to attack their base at Camp Ashraf in July, resulting in 11 casualties and 500 wounded, according to the Iranian rebels.

"Maliki is drunk with power right now," says a member of parliament who experienced his behavior first-hand at a secret meeting with the heads of the parties represented in parliament. "He openly threatened us there: If anyone brings something against him and his Dawa Party, he will definitely also find something against him."

Secret Decree

The prime minister has "a strong authoritarian vein," says Kadhim al-Rikabi, who heads an association for independent media. He says it is frightening to see with what determination that government is gagging the press: "If the US occupation has left us with one good body of legislation, then this would be the media decrees of 2003," says Rikabi. At the time, US proconsul Paul Bremer set up an independent media council, whose members were to be elected by parliament.

But ever since Maliki has been in office, Kadhim complains, he has personally named the media councils, which are allowed to grant print, online and broadcasting licenses. He has reintroduced the censorship laws from the Saddam era, and directly intervenes if he disapproves of articles. He also issued a secret decree dated Aug. 6 and sent to the interior, defense and health ministries. "The Prime Minister and Supreme Commander has ordered," he wrote, "that every government official who, after terrorist attacks gives details concerning the victims to media outlets, shall be severely punished."

Maliki's vision of patriotic reporting can be viewed on the broadcasts of the government channel Al Iraqiya. The leader always sits at the front of the table, with subordinates right and left who take notes on his speeches. Praise for the wisdom of his leadership is compulsory -- just as it used to be in the days of dictatorship.

Good Morning Baghdad

"Ah, look how beautiful our city is in the autumn," said a presenter a few days ago on the "Good Morning, Iraq" show. "Now let's listen to a song by Qassim Sultan."

Images of a surreally beautiful Baghdad flashed on the screen, children swinging in the city's Saura amusement park, a baker sliding bread into an oven, policeman directing traffic on Kahramana Square. "Good morning, Baghdad," sang Qassim Sultan, "good morning, our life, inshallah (Allah willing), will be wonderful."

These are songs of the Sirens, reminiscent of the rule of Saddam. The reality in Baghdad is different, but it is without a doubt better than in the past few years marred by violence, attacks and barbarity, which form the basis of comparison in today's Iraq.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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