Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Iraqi Vice

Locals are calling it 'the bad side of freedom': pills, porn, prostitution and booze are rampant now. And it's not only the radicals who blame America.

By Christian Caryl

Dec. 22 issue - The trip from Ali's village to Baghdad takes an hour and a half by bus. As soon as he arrives, the 21-year-old Iraqi heads straight to Abu Abdullah's, just off Sadoun Street in an alley with a number instead of a name. "I don't have a wife," he says. "I don't have enough money to get married. So I come here." At Abu Abdullah's, $1.50 buys 15 minutes alone with a woman. The room is a cell with only a curtain for a door, and Ali complains that Abu Abdullah's women should bathe more often. But the young man says it's still a big improvement from Saddam Hussein's day. Back then, he says, the only establishment for a poor boy like himself was at a Gypsy settlement on the capital's western outskirts. "But now there are plenty of places." He grins. "Now we have freedom."

Before the invasion, Iraq was one of the world's most tightly controlled societies. Only a few specially licensed stores could sell alcohol, and in recent years drinking was banned outright in restaurants and hotels. A committee in the Ministry of Culture kept a strict watch against even mildly naughty movies, magazines and films. Convicted prostitutes could be beheaded. Hard-core drug abuse was virtually unknown--if you didn't count certain members of Saddam's immediate family and their close friends. Now Iraqis like Ali are making up for what they've missed--and many other Iraqis, young and old, are blaming America. "Some people say the spread of such things is designed to weaken our society," says Col. Daoud Selman, a police chief in one of Baghdad's roughest districts. "Every day we hear it from people on the street. Not just the religious people, but ordinary ones, too."

Iraqis call it "the bad side of freedom." The problems go far beyond Baghdad's tailgate liquor bazaars, where wildcat shopkeepers peddle booze from the backs of cars, or the arrays of skin magazines on full display at the teeming Bab-i-Sharji market in the heart of town. The worry isn't only the growing number of visibly intoxicated people around the market, or the pharmacopeia of pills that are readily available there without prescription. What bothers many Iraqis, apparently even some of those who make their living from the sin industry, is the question of where Iraq is headed.

Walk down the street from the market to the adult cinemas, where 70 cents buys an all-day ticket and the audience hoots in protest if a nonpornographic trailer interrupts the action. "We have to compete with the satellites," says the manager of one theater, almost apologetically. A third of the country's population is estimated to have access to pornographic TV channels via satellite dish. For those who don't, enterprising dealers record the footage on videodiscs and sell them for a pittance. "Under Saddam this would have been an automatic six months in jail," says a vendor who keeps ultra-X wares in a drawer for special customers at his video shop in Baghdad's Karada district. "Now nothing will happen to us."

Nothing the police are likely to do, anyway. The regime's vice laws remain on the books, but they're rarely enforced. "Immediately after the war, we started raids and arresting prostitutes and pimps," says Lt. Col. Omar Zahid, a top cop in Abu Abdullah's district. "But the American MPs made us release them. After that, the whores and pimps understood they had nothing to fear." The colonel admits he doesn't know how he could have kept them all anyway; his jail was overflowing with thieves and violent criminals.

But Islamic vigilantes are inflicting punishments that can be far more severe than a short stay behind bars. Liquor stores and porno shops around the country have been bombed, torched or even attacked with rocket-propelled grenades. Two customers at a porno theater in Mosul died in September when unidentified assailants dropped a hand grenade through a ceiling vent. The owners had previously been threatened by Islamic groups. "In Saddam's time I had one old night watchman," says Hassan Abd, manager of Baghdad's Al Khayam theater, which has begun showing adult films. "Now I have three young people armed with Kalashnikovs."

Most Iraqis say they don't know what to do about the vice explosion. Few seem at all enthusiastic about the idea of Saudi-style morality police. "We can't forbid freedom," concedes Fuad al Rawi, a leader of the predominantly Sunni and deeply conservative Iraqi Islamic Party. Still, some people are always ready to try. That's how people like Saddam come to power.

© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.

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