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As Iraqi youth see U.S. culture, many turn to nationalism

BAGHDAD, Iraq—In a darkened arcade in Baghdad, Iraqi youths gather to sip Cokes, smoke Marlboros and battle for the highest scores on video games that were banned under Saddam Hussein's regime.

Bootlegged Sony PlayStation 2 games poured into the country after the war, but one remained boxed on a shelf this week: "Conflict: Desert Storm," set during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

"They made the Iraqi soldier look very weak and the American soldier very strong," said Yaser Ali, the arcade's 22-year-old attendant. "You shoot the American soldier many times and he doesn't die, but you shoot the Iraqi once and he's dead. See, what we get from America is not always good for us."

With more than half of Iraq's 24 million residents younger than 25, cultivating youth support is key for the U.S. administration's long-term goals to shape the country into a model for Middle East democracy.

Yet many young, middle-class Iraqis—future leaders of the country—say they are losing admiration for the America they glimpse through action movies, raunchy music videos and the soldiers their age who patrol the streets. For many, thinking of themselves as Arab and Iraqi has taken on new importance since the American soldiers arrived.

While an objective survey of opinion in Iraq is impossible, it's clear that many students who perfected their English and dreamed of attending American universities now are joining Iraqi nationalist factions and, in some cases, resistance groups that attack U.S. soldiers. They are boning up on the pan-Arabist teachings of Egypt's socialist former president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and are spraying Baghdad walls with graffiti that reads "Go wage jihad!" and "Down with Bush!"

The U.S.-led coalition is courting Iraq's youths with programs to revamp teen centers and re-establish sports teams in time for the soccer season that begins in October, according to a posting on the coalition's Web site by Mark Clark, senior adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Youth and Sport.

"If people are happily engaged in cultural, sporting and youth activities, they are off the streets and not engaged in other more hostile activities," Clark wrote.

But the programs have limited reach.

"Before the war, I didn't care about politics," said Monica Mohsin, 18, whose wealthy Christian family initially welcomed Saddam's ouster. "I could go to clubs and parties. Now, my life is within four walls because my parents are too scared to let me go out. I swear, I never rejected Americans until they came to Iraq and opened a wide door for thieves and terrorists."

Mohsin flung open her closet in a bedroom filled with stuffed animals and Barbie dolls. She pulled out the sheer shirts and fringed pants favored by Western pop stars and sighed. The expensive clothes that were the envy of her high school friends a few months ago are worthless, she said.

"If I wear these now, people will tease me that I'm trying to look American," Mohsin said. "They would call me a clown."

A few economically savvy youths said they were weaning themselves from American imports in favor of homegrown alternatives. Some are drinking Kufa Cola, named after the Iraqi holy city where it's bottled, instead of Pepsi or Coke. Others are buying locally produced mixed audiotapes known as "cocktails" to avoid the lure of Radio Sawa, the Arabic pop station broadcast by the U.S. State Department.

Girls whose secular families never required them to wear headscarves said they had started covering to assert an Islamic identity. Their brothers, in soccer jerseys and imitation Nikes, wrap their heads with black-and-white kaffiyehs, the checkered scarves often associated with Palestinian opposition to Israel. Young Iraqis said such small acts of resistance eased the humiliation of having so little control over their lives.

"My friends tell me we have development now and they brag about having satellites and cell phones," said Ali Abdel Karim, 18, lounging at a Baghdad pool hall. "This is not the development we need. Those things will just take away our culture and traditions."

Farah al Shabkon, 22, said the coalition's temporary ban on issuing travel documents forced her to get a fake passport so she could visit her fiance in Dubai, a city in the nearby United Arab Emirates. She graduated from Baghdad University "by God's will only" after sweating in the dark to study for final exams in a home with no electricity.

Yet on a shopping trip this week, Shabkon still wore the flared jeans and movie-star sunglasses made popular by Jennifer Lopez, one of her favorite style icons. She also confessed to tuning in to "Superstar," the Arab world's equivalent of "American Idol," and even to singing along to Britney Spears videos.

"So what? I take their fashion and music. They took our civilization," Shabkon said. "No matter how I dress, I'll always be 100 percent Arab."


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+youth