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Beauty salons under attack in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Two months ago, Baghdad had a spree of attacks on liquor and music stores. Now beauty salons are being bombed.

Women in Baghdad say it's much more than an issue of unkempt hair. They say the bombings are part of a larger effort by unorganized, illegitimate armies to foist a more conservative lifestyle on them. The armies of Islamic militants have gained power on the street since the fall of the more secular Saddam Hussein.

Beauty shops in Baghdad often are run by women. Many of them have shut down in recent weeks because they can't afford to rebuild after an attack or because their customers have been scared off.

Some salons allow men to work on women's hair, which may be frowned on by those attacking the shops, the women say. Some think salons are being targeted because beauty shops in general have been long known as places that facilitate prostitution. Others think it's because some Iraqis believe the beautification of women is sinful.

The women say the bombings rarely lead to arrests. They think unofficial groups such as rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq's Badr Brigade are orchestrating most of them.

Both organizations denied that their men were involved. Abdul Hadi al Daraji, an al-Sadr spokesman, said the cleric hadn't issued a religious order, or fatwa, calling for attacks.

Nasreen Kadhim Hussein, 37, used to own a shop near the al Abbass Mosque in the neighborhood of New Baghdad, where the Mahdi Army often exchanges fire with American forces on patrol.

Hussein, who's a Shiite Muslim, thought her shop would be safe near a mosque. But about two months ago someone bombed the salon in the middle of the night, leaving shrapnel lodged in everything, including the hair dryers. She's been out of work since, she said, because she can't afford the estimated 1 million Iraqi dinar—about $700—that it would take to rebuild.

No one has taken responsibility for the bombing, but she said residents told her they saw a group of men from the Badr Brigade attack it.

Some women said they'd been warned of impending attacks by letters slipped under their doors telling them to evacuate. Hussein said she had no warning, and never imagined that beauty salons would be targeted. She said she'd never seen a fatwa that said running a beauty salon was wrong.

Beauty shop owners say they're all the more frustrated because of how police have handled their complaints.

Hussein said she gave police photos, and neighbors gave statements. But the officers told her the neighborhood didn't need businesses such as hers anyway, implying her shop was linked to prostitution.

So Hussein took more residents to the station, who backed her up and said that wasn't the case. The police still didn't help, she said.

In Sadr City, a poor neighborhood where the Mahdi Army is strong, abandoned beauty shops are easy to spot. Some have shattered windows. Others simply look as if someone left one day and never came back.

The 47-year-old owner of a beauty shop in the Karada neighborhood, who asked not to be identified, said she used to take in up to 150,000 Iraqi dinar a day, about $100. On average, she now brings in 3,000 Iraqi dinar a day, about $2, "enough to buy bread and go home." She let two of her staffers go last month and now runs the shop alone. She earns much of her living by going to the homes of clients who are afraid to come to her shop.

But one afternoon recently, three women came in at once.

One of them, Ahlam Mohammed, 47, said she usually didn't wear a veil, but to go to the beauty shop she put on clothes worn by the most pious Muslims so no one would bother her.

She called the salon beforehand to make sure it was expecting her. Once there, she knocked quietly and waited for the owner to peek out and unlock what two months ago was an open front door.

Once inside, Mohammed threw off her veil and grabbed a cigarette. The two other women smacked their gum and chatted.

Rita Ramsey, 31, a Christian, wore a long skirt, but said she'd wear Muslim garb if she had to for protection. "Sometimes I am afraid to wear too much makeup," she said.

Her sister, Hyam Ramsey, 42, a church secretary with light brown hair, added, "We've heard that anyone blonde could be targeted."


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

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


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