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When in Iraq, lovers of Cuban cigars find rare satisfaction

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Regimes may come and regimes may go, but for nearly a decade now, the fashionable cigar-smoker has found his way to Ali Qournawi's Zenobia.

The tobacco store in an exclusive Baghdad district has been shattered by a car bomb, seen its supplies wilt in wartime power outages and lost its original Baath Party clientele to exile and jail.

But Qournawi reports that postwar business has skyrocketed 200 percent, thanks to the tastes of U.S. service members and more stealthy security men, who snap up his $12 Cohiba Esplendidos, $10 Romeo y Julietas and $8 Montecristo Torpedos, all from Cuba, all brought to Iraq by boat from a supplier in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates.

"People who smoke cigars are high class, they have style," said Qournawi, 28, who set up shop during U.N. sanctions in the 1990s and started catering to senior officials of Saddam Hussein's regime. Now he thinks his customers are from the CIA.

These days, none of his original clientele appears. They all fled abroad last year before the U.S.-led invasion or are now "at the airport," he said wryly, using Baghdad's euphemism for the clandestine American lockup where agents are interrogating former Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz and other members of the so-called "deck of cards," the list of the most-wanted Iraqis from the former regime.

It's not known where Saddam, who's been in U.S. custody three months, is being held, and coalition officials won't say whether he's getting a supply of the stogies that he seemed to clutch constantly, but rarely smoke, in his day.

Qournawi and other Iraqis think that Saddam, his son Odai and Aziz got special supplies as favored friends of Cuban President Fidel Castro—straight from Cuba, by private plane. However the cigars got here, American commanders treated their troops to generally forbidden Cuban booty, mostly Cohibas, that they discovered in Tigris riverfront villas that belonged to regime members, along with liquor and caches of gun and cash early in Baghdad's invasion.

Saddam and his inner circle adopted the cigar affectation with exuberance to seem more macho, Iraqi oil painter Esam Pasha said.

"In Egyptian movies—the Arabs' Hollywood—a terrifying, mysterious, important guy smokes a cigar," said Pasha, 28, a former member of Iraq's national judo team and a self-styled renaissance man with straggly hair and a bushy black beard.

Pasha puffs in his studio or after a good meal. For a time, before it grew too dangerous, he worked as an Arabic-English translator on U.S. patrols, and he affectionately recalled the Cuban cigars he savored outside a chow hall with a Miami reservist he knew as Sgt. Jimenez.

"If smoking a cigarette is like a snack, then smoking a cigar is like a meal," Pasha said.

It's also a celebratory act, which may explain why Qournawi's successor clientele was uniformed U.S. soldiers enjoying their swift seizure of the capital after frightful visions of weapons of mass destruction. The troops cruised the city like champions for a time, until suicide bombings and drive-by shootings dampened their sense of triumph.

Now, a new kind of foreign customer comes to Zenobia: fit American and European civilians wearing flak vests and toting Sigsauer pistols and MP5 submachine guns, standard attire for some of the bodyguards and security consultants who've flooded the capital.

"We all call them the CIA," Qournawi said, with a shrug.

Be they former Baath Party loyalists or Westerners, all his customers have had a common trait. "They're real gentlemen, polite," he said. "Those who smoke, usually, are high-class and they're traveled."

Qournawi said he and a childhood friend started the cigar business as a lark in the mid-ྖs because Qournawi's father favored cigars. Baghdad was a lonely, paranoid place then and few Iraqis except regime insiders had the resources to shop at Zenobia, named after a warrior queen who fought Rome in third-century Syria.

A year ago, when a U.S.-led invasion seemed inevitable, Qournawi shuttered his shop, took the last boat from Basra to Dubai, on March 5, and sat out the war. When he returned, airstrikes had cut Baghdad's electricity and silenced the air conditioners that cooled his stock, which was in special imported humidors.

The American soldiers who ruled the streets snapped up his cracked, dried Cubanos. They didn't care.


(Rosenberg reports for The Miami Herald).


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.