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In Iraq, Arnold is legendary for body, politics

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A stern-looking face peers from a faded poster tacked to a wall in the upscale Maamoon neighborhood, declaring, "My instinct was to win, eliminate anyone who is in competition, destroy my enemy and move on without any kind of hesitation at all."

Saddam Hussein didn't say that. This guiding mantra for every bodybuilder in Iraq came from Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose face and muscular torso adorn nearly every gym wall in Baghdad and the bedroom walls of many athletes.

"For me as a bodybuilder and coach, Arnold is like a very big book. His way of training, his experience, we follow every step of his career," said Saif Abdul Razak Hussein, 23, who spends most days at the Rasheed Center for Bodybuilding on al Maamoon Street. "It's good to see someone like him, someone like us, running a big state."

Practically every Iraqi knows Arnold is governor-elect of California. One gym changed its name to The Arnold Classic after Schwarzenegger won.

Like many Americans, Iraqis are divided about whether he has the experience to pull a state the size of Iraq out of its economic slump. But most think he'll do a better job running California than their own interim Governing Council will do managing the challenges of rebuilding postwar Iraq.

Many Iraqis don't like the 25-member council because it was appointed—by foreigners, no less—rather than elected and because former exiles who lived abroad during the tough years under Saddam dominate the group. Alas, the council has no celebrities on it.

"I think he will do a good job," Hussein said, speaking of Schwarzenegger. "I read that he is a good businessman."

Arnold's visit to Iraq in July rubbed some of his fans here the wrong way. Several bodybuilders said they saw the Republican on television telling U.S. troops he wasn't the original "Terminator"—they were.

"Before, I had a good opinion of Arnold, but right now my opinion has completely changed. When he came here to speak to soldiers I was disappointed, because I thought he agreed with what the American soldiers did," said Amir Foaad Abed, 19.

Abed, a bodybuilder and student at Baghdad's Electrical Technical Institute, doesn't support Saddam but is angry about the aggressive treatment of many Iraqis by U.S. soldiers.

Still, Abed said Arnold would do a good job as governor because he was elected. "Because he's famous, he's an actor, he's rich, so people elected him for those reasons. So he will do a good job."

Former boxing champion Abdul Aziz Salim Abdul Aziz, 30, works out at the nearby Asaad Hamid Center for Bodybuilding and has 20 pictures each of Arnold and Sylvester Stallone on his bedroom wall.

"Arnold is the best representative of the sport, and I'm one of his biggest fans," Aziz said. "But he has no experience in politics. He's won championships, he became an actor, he's done some very good movies, but he won't be able to lead California through its troubles, because California is a place for troubles like crime, hunger, suffering. What does he know about these things?"


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+ARNOLD