ALBUNAHIDH, Iraq — This country is engulfed in a war against Islamic State militants and is plagued by sectarian division. But one village says it has found a way to insulate itself from Iraq’s turmoil.
It has banned political debate.
On a narrow road running beside a sunflower field, a sign welcomes visitors and lays out the rules of Albunahidh, a placid hamlet on the banks of the Euphrates River about 100 miles south of Baghdad.
No political or religious debate. No smoking, honking car horns or cutting down trees.
The rules are striking in a country where talking politics through thick clouds of tobacco smoke could be considered a national pastime. Iraqi men while away hours in coffee shops and traditional meeting halls beside brimming ashtrays or bubbling water pipes debating the latest conspiracy theories and political maneuverings.
But residents say the code of conduct is designed to protect the health of the families that live here and the unity of the community of about 500 people in a time of war.
“Everybody’s affected by what’s happening in the country,” said Kadim Hassoon, 44, an engineer who lobbied for the rules. “We know the situation in Iraq, the war, the politics — what’s the benefit in talking about it? If you sit here and try and push your ideas, there’s tension.”
Under Saddam Hussein, political opposition was fiercely suppressed, and the fear of government informants stifled conversation about politics. But since Hussein was toppled in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, political debate has flourished, with scores of parties springing up, representing the nation’s diverse religious and ethnic groups.
While the southern provinces have not been touched by the battles ravaging areas in the north and west, the war is still a major topic in these Shiite heartlands. This town’s young men have gone to fight in the army and in a growing array of Shiite militias, giving the conflict more immediacy. Meanwhile, the Shiite south watched closely last August as then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who had a healthy following in villages like this, was forced out and replaced by Haider al-Abadi, also a Shiite. All of it is fodder for debate.
“I’d say: What’s the point?” Hassoon said. “Religious parties are always trying to push people. Religious debate is a dangerous matter.”
From across the village’s central mudhif, a gathering space made of woven river reeds, Abdullah Kadhim Saghban, a wizened 74-year-old, agreed.
“After 2003, we received democracy, we talked, but there were so many parties it caused division,” he said.
Shiites are unified in their opposition to the Islamic State, which is made up of extremist Sunnis. But these are sensitive times, Saghban pointed out, reclining against traditional embroidered cushions laid out along the sides of the meeting hall.
“We should avoid talking about things that might divide us, and stay united,” he said. “How did the enemy enter our cities? Because [the cities] were divided; they had differences.”
He is quick to point out that although religious debate is discouraged, the rules are not against religion.
“Religion is like the sea. It’s so deep, we shouldn’t try to fully understand it,” he said. The details, he added, should be left to clerics.
Although the rules came into force only a few months ago, smoking has long been frowned upon in this sleepy outpost, the legacy of Hassoon’s father, a village elder who strongly discouraged it for health reasons. When the younger Hassoon returned to the village two years ago after working in the Persian Gulf, he pressed for the rules, with other “healthy” additions.
Hassoon said he also has begun to instill a culture of jogging and cycling — although it was “not an easy matter.”
“It used to be that if people saw someone running on the street, it was considered something strange, abnormal,” he said. “Now we’ve broken the barrier.” Bicycles are lined up outside the village hall.
The village has held a fun run, and to mark “environment day” earlier this year, it held a 13-mile cycling event. Hassoon also arranged for 300 trees to be planted. Under the town’s palms, villagers have begun beekeeping, and a mobile library is planned.
Sodas, which are ubiquitous in sugar-loving Iraq, are banned for children. Abbas Karim, 15, giggled when he was asked when he last had one. Two months ago, he said.
At the village shop, there’s not a cigarette packet in sight, although cans of soda do make it onto the shelves.
Hassoon said there had been little resistance to the rules.
“There were very small voices against it, but we didn’t listen to such voices,” he said.
That’s hard to believe in a country where smoking is pervasive. In the rest of the country, from government buildings to taxis, virtually nowhere is off-limits to smoking. A proposed federal ban on smoking in public places has never come into force.
Some residents may be smoking “under the radar,” Hassoon acknowledged, with scattered cigarette butts on the street pointing to the existence of rule breakers.
The restrictions do not apply to guests, but Riyadh al-Shahar, 50, an artist visiting the village, decided to hold back. Still, his eyes regularly darted to his lighter and cigarette pack, and he occasionally started to reach for them. “I really want to smoke,” he whispered. “But I’m not going to, out of respect.”
He would find it hard to live here, he said, adding: “As an artist, I have to smoke.”
Rule breakers are not penalized, only encouraged to change their ways, residents said. But ultimately, if locals do not follow the rules, they may have to decide whether they belong here.
“First we’d treat them softly, but they should try to quit, otherwise they shouldn’t live here,” Saghban said. “The majority of us hate smoking and hate political debate, so this is just how it should be.”
Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.