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Curfew leaves Iraqis longing for festive Baghdad nights

By Leila Fadel
Sunday, July 4, 2010; A14

BAGHDAD -- Just before midnight each evening, Iraqis rush home to beat the curfew. In these wee hours the streets are empty, save Iraqi security forces, American convoys moving equipment and a few brave children using the empty streets as a soccer field.

But now a group of advocates, poets and journalists want to take back the hours of darkness. They dream of reliving the Baghdad nights when people gathered, listened to music and voiced their approval with exclamations in the name of God.

"Music is not for political parties or for sects; it is for everyone. We demand the night back through music," said Sarmad al-Tai, the editor of the independent newspaper al-Alam.

On this summer night, the demand at a peaceful sit-in of about 30 people is not about services or security. It's simple. Return the fun to Baghdad nights. Lift the curfew.

"I've calculated it, and the curfew stole three years of our life," said Ziad al Ajili, an advocate for journalists' rights in Iraq. "Three out of almost eight years is gone, and that is painful."

Under a green statue that is supposed to symbolize freedom, men sang songs of nostalgia, sadness and the love of night. It was here that Saddam Hussein's 39-foot statue was pulled from its pedestal in 2003 with the help of an American tank. But the new statue has faded with the toll of more than seven years of war, and Iraqis say that it represents an ideal that many have never really tasted.

The years since the American-led invasion have seen the rise of a Sunni insurgency and Shiite militias, terrifying raids on Iraqi homes and a bloody sectarian war that took thousands of lives. Now, violence is lower, but it still lurks in small attacks that happen nearly every day. Iraqis are stuck in limbo as they wait for their government to form nearly four months after a national election.

"No to the curfew at night/All the crimes are committed in the day," reads a banner blowing in the wind, among many hanging at the entrance to the square that repeat criticisms often heard in the streets.

"Iraq is drowning in darkness and garbage."

"Seven years is enough of government failures."

"You can't imagine how beautiful Baghdad was. How the nights were before, when families stayed out in parks until the morning," Ajili said. He wants his two young children to witness that beauty, he said.

A man played the keyboard on the elevated steps in the square. Men and a sprinkle of women sat on plastic chairs and sang old Baghdadi melodies into microphones.

Outside the square, security forces surrounded the area to both protect and watch the peaceful sit-in. The spokesman for Baghdad's security forces, Brig. Gen. Qassim Atta, showed up to talk to the small gathering.

"When we reach to a level of comfort, I swear to God we will lift the curfew," he said. The capital is still a dangerous place.

"We will lift this curfew with music," Tai, the gray-haired editor, said.

As Atta walked away, the songs began again. Imad al Ibadi, one of the organizers and a journalist who survived an assassination attempt last year, welcomed the security official's exit.

"He is the enemy of ours," he said. Ibadi has long been critical of the U.S. invasion and the government. "Why did he come? To give excuses?"

By 11:30, the gathering had largely broken up. Many who demanded a change weren't willing to risk breaking the curfew. A few stayed all night as the streets around them emptied. As the city slept, they prayed for it to wake again.

"In 20 minutes it will be midnight. Prepare a song that cries for the night of Baghdad," Tai told the others.

"The night is beautiful/beautiful and sweet," they sang when they officially broke Baghdad's curfew. They danced, and a woman sat with her baby as her little boy ran through the square.

"He's so happy because it's something odd," Safa al-Obaidi said. "We used to stay out all night and have weddings at night. It's as if we're in the old days."

After 1 a.m. they moved the chairs into an intimate circle. Late into the night, they traded lyrics and memories. They twisted the words of a love song to challenge current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

"Oh Nouri, oh Nouri," they sang. "We lifted this curfew."

At 5 a.m., people emerged from restaurants and clubs that lock in patrons just before midnight until the curfew is lifted.

They streamed into the square to join the sit-in. Next week they will gather again.

Special correspondent Jinan Hussein contributed to this report.

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