By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 7, 2009
BAGHDAD, Aug. 6 -- This is a country of frazzled nerves and nicotine, where deals are struck and conspiracy theories hatched in the smokiest of rooms.
So why in the world, Iraqis demanded Thursday, would the government introduce a plan to ban smoking in public places?
Smoking is widespread in the region, and few countries have taken steps toward a ban. Jordan and Israel prohibit smoking in public places, and Qatar has a ban on indoor smoking in public places, though it is loosely enforced.
But a bill being presented to the Iraqi parliament by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's cabinet would rewrite rules in a way that many Iraqis who were interviewed described as inconceivable, by banning smoking in government buildings and public indoor areas.
"We have no electricity, no jobs, people still get killed," said Waleed Habba, 49, as he bought a pack of cigarettes at a tobacco store in downtown Baghdad. "We all have to deal with anger issues here. That's the reason people smoke here, to run away from that."
"We want Saddam back," said Ala al-Kanini, a patron at the store, referring to the late Iraqi leader. "You could do anything during Saddam's time."
The proposal appears to reflect the government's desire to shake off Iraq's image as a battle-ravaged, lawless country as it seeks to woo foreign investors and latch onto the global economy after decades of isolation. Aside from the smoking ban, Iraqi officials are weighing initiatives to regulate the Internet and satellite television channels to ban pornography and prohibit or more tightly regulate alcohol sales.
"The purpose of the law is to protect Iraqi citizens from the dangers of smoking," the government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, said in a statement.
Smoking in Iraq is pervasive. People chain-smoke in government buildings, hospitals, cafes and restaurants. They light up at weddings and funerals, before boarding planes and after bombings.
It is rare to meet with an Iraqi government official who doesn't smoke. Iraqi troops and policemen drag on cigarettes at checkpoints and in Humvees. And virtually every Iraqi home and office has ashtrays.
Under the proposal, violators of the ban would be subjected to a fine of up to $4,300, the government said. And smugglers caught bringing in brands with high levels of nicotine and tar would be fined twice as much.
It is not clear whether the proposal will become law. Bills before Iraq's parliament, whether controversial or not, tend to languish amid bickering and indecision. When Turkey expanded a ban on indoor smoking at public places last month, the move triggered what became known as the "smoking ban murder," when a patron opened fire on a restaurant owner in southwest Turkey after the man was asked to put out his cigarette.
Haithen Abdul Hussain, who owns a tobacco store in upscale Karrada in central Baghdad, said he doubts the initiative will hurt business because it would be impossible to enforce in a country where smoking is so ingrained in social norms.
"All parliament members smoke," he exclaimed. "If they want to improve our health, maybe they should consider fixing our electricity first."
Sunni lawmaker Saleh al-Mutlak laughed when he heard about the bill. He said he quit smoking six months ago but doesn't think his constituents are ready to give up the privilege of lighting up anywhere they want.
"Banning smoking is a civilized phenomenon, but we are not in a psychological state and civilized situation that would justify that," he said. "The government has a wild imagination, and it is trying to delude the world into thinking that there are no problems left in the country other than smoking."
Iraqi Kurdish lawmaker Tanya Gilly, who supports the bill -- and doesn't smoke -- said it might be the one piece of legislation that unites opposite ends of the political spectrum in parliament. The more progressive, pro-Western blocks might support it for health reasons. And conservative Sunnis Muslims who deem smoking "haram," or forbidden under their interpretation of Islam, are also likely to get on board.
Special correspondents Aziz Alwan and Zaid Zabah contributed to this report.