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An End to Baghdad's 'Dark Era'

American soldiers take advantage of increased security in Baghdad to sample the nightlife on Abu Nawas Street, mingling publicly with Iraqis in ways rarely seen in the Iraqi capital.

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SOURCE: | The Washington Post - February 28, 2009
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 28, 2009

BAGHDAD, Feb. 27 -- The American soldier stepped out of the Baghdad nightclub. In one hand, he clutched his weapon. In the other, a green can of Tuborg beer. He took a sip and walked over to two comrades, dressed as he was in camouflage and combat gear.

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Inside the club Thursday night, U.S. soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division ogled young Iraqi women who appeared to be prostitutes gyrating to Arabic pop music. A singer crooned soulfully through scratchy speakers to the raucous, pulsating beat -- an action that Islamic extremists have deemed punishable by beheading.

Twenty minutes later, several drunk men coaxed an American soldier to dance. He awkwardly shuffled his feet, wearing night-vision equipment and a radio, joining the women and boisterous young men in an Arabic chain dance around tables covered with empty beer bottles.

For most of the past six years, U.S. troops and other Westerners in Baghdad have barricaded themselves behind blast walls and traveled the streets in armored cars, fearing attack or capture. Time spent in what Americans call the Red Zone -- all of the capital except for a protected part of central Baghdad -- invited and often brought calamity. U.S. troops do not leave their bases or outposts unless they are on duty.

The soldiers on Abu Nawas Street said they were visiting the club to talk to the manager about security, but they were socializing publicly with Iraqis in a way that was unimaginable even a few months ago. The scene reflected the increasing sense of security in the capital and many parts of Iraq, but it was impossible to know how many U.S. soldiers in Baghdad have the opportunity or the inclination to drink a beer while on patrol, apparently in violation of rules banning alcohol consumption in combat zones.

A U.S. military spokesman, responding to a query about the soldiers, was incredulous. "Just so I understand this clearly, you saw U.S. soldiers at a nightclub in downtown Baghdad outside of the Green Zone in uniform drinking and dancing?" asked Tech. Sgt. Chris Stagner.

Club manager Salah Hassan said Thursday's visit was not exceptional. "The Americans come here four or five times a week," he said. "They buy drinks and pay for them."

Others at the club said the soldiers had been there more than once. "I love the Americans," said Amal Saad, a petite young woman with blue contact lenses and thick red lipstick. "I like it when they come here. I feel so safe."

"Many times, I went with them in their Humvees," she added. "They took me to shops and bought me chocolates and gifts."

Hassan said he started his club with a $10,000 grant handed out by the U.S. military to launch small businesses, an integral part of U.S. counterinsurgency strategy to pacify Baghdad. "They come and dance," he said. "We know each other well. And they tell their friends, and they also come."

Under a Status of Forces Agreement the U.S. and Iraqi governments signed in November, an American soldier who commits a serious crime off base and off duty is subject to Iraqi laws, although the United States retains the final word in determining whether a soldier was off duty. Drinking and dancing may create a hard-to-dispute impression that a soldier was at leisure.

"Everyone is having a good time," said Spec. Eric Cartwright, 26, of Granada Hills, Calif., as he watched his comrade do the chain dance. "No one is scared about what's going to happen to them. This is a good sign."

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