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.
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."
In the 1970s, Abu Nawas Street was the nexus of Iraq's night life. Bars stayed open until the early morning. In 1994, Saddam Hussein, in an attempt to win the support of religiously conservative Iraqis, closed all the nightclubs.
After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents targeted alcohol sellers. They issued death threats to singers and dancers, forcing many to flee the country.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in an effort to portray himself as a secular nationalist, allowed the reopening of the nightspots three months ago, a move that has bolstered his popularity among many urban Iraqis. Still, most nightclubs have remained closed for much of the time since his order, a period that includes several Muslim holidays.
Threats from extremists remain, but the heavy security measures across the capital have brought confidence.
Nightclubs are starting to open up in other parts of Baghdad. Hotels are hosting dance parties for well-off Iraqis. Social clubs, where alcohol and gambling are part of the fare, are seeing more customers. Performers are returning from exile.
And Abu Nawas Street is arguably the safest street in the capital. It runs along the Tigris River, ending at one entrance to the Green Zone, where the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government buildings are situated. Hassan's nightclub is on a stretch of street that is blocked off on either end by blast walls and checkpoints guarded by Iraqi private security contractors and police. Several American and European media organizations have fortresslike bureaus up the road, each with its own private force. American troops patrol on foot virtually every day.
"This area is well protected," Hassan said. "If I didn't have the security, I wouldn't be able to do business. Customers will be afraid to come. They will be kidnapped or killed."
The previous night, he said, gunmen entered a nightclub near Andalus Square in central Baghdad and kidnapped two customers.
A few minutes later, Hassan became nervous about discussing the visits by U.S. soldiers. He asked that the name of his nightclub not be mentioned, even though it was written on a signboard outside in English. "The Americans will come and shut me down," he said.
At a club next door, the patrons were too drunk to care about threats. Each had paid a $45 entrance fee -- a princely sum for many Iraqis -- to hear Adeeba, one of the nation's most famous singers. The dark-haired diva didn't disappoint.
She blew kisses to the all-male audience, and began:
Believe me, I did not get bored of you.
My soul is a pigeon in your house.
A dancer wearing a tight red-and-black outfit gyrated across the floor, as the audience erupted in screams. Young men, some in fashionable jackets, wiggled their hips and waved pink tissues. One man went up to the balcony and threw handfuls of cash that floated down toward Adeeba and her five-man band.
Adeeba, who like most Iraqi singers uses only her first name, returned two months ago from Bahrain -- after fleeing Iraq three years ago. "There was no work and if anyone was caught singing, they would behead her," she said.
She was encouraged to return because of the improvements in security and also because "living outside my country killed me." She had also heard that the nightclubs had reopened.
"The dark era is over," she said with confidence.
Her audience agreed.
"Listening to her made me feel the security," said Muntader Khazal, 18, who sells clothes.
"We never expected that such a day will come in Iraq," gushed his friend Hussein Sheba, 17.
Meanwhile, at Hassan's nightclub, the American soldier danced, arm in arm, with his new Iraqi friends.
Special correspondent Zaid Sabah contributed to this report.