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Iraqis confused about first full weekend off

BAGHDAD, Iraq—In a country with no shortage of divisive issues, even an extra day off is fodder for debate.

Saturday marked the first time since 1972 that Iraqi workers had two weekend days off, thanks to Order No. 18 from the country's interim government that extended the official weekend past Friday, the Islamic holy day. While many workaday Iraqis cherished the extra time with families and marveled at the lack of traffic, others scoffed.

Infuriated at finding banks and schools closed, some Iraqis complained there wasn't enough notice of the change. Hardline Muslim clerics bristled at sharing a holiday with the Jewish Sabbath. Others pointed to the rampant violence and lack of basic services to ask: Is there really time to rest when an entire country needs rebuilding?

"We have more important things to worry about than a holiday," lamented Satar Jabar, a 35-year-old traffic cop. "The government should focus on solving the main problems, like security and getting rid of terrorists."

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's administration announced the two-day weekend with ads in local newspapers and spots on Iraqi television. But the news was slow to trickle down to ordinary Iraqis. Smartly dressed students showed up for class at Baghdad University only to find the campus closed Saturday. The Bank of Baghdad was shuttered to the dismay of residents trying to withdraw cash, the only thing that shopkeepers accept in a land with no ATMs or credit cards.

Employees at some private companies found the change too confusing, gave up and worked anyway. Others joked that unemployment is so high in Iraq that no one would notice the extra day off.

Judge Wael Abdul Latif, a member of Allawi's cabinet, said he voted against the order because he believed Iraqis should determine their workweek in a national referendum. He said he lost, even after arguing that "every Iraqi is looking forward to rebuilding his country as soon as possible and wants to benefit from every single minute."

The Allawi administration cited the global trend toward shorter workweeks as one reason for the change. Most Muslim nations take Friday off, but vary in whether Thursday or Saturday is the second day of the weekend.

Sermons at communal Friday prayers typically focus on calls for peace or political analysis, but this week some clerics used the forum to blast the decision to make Saturday a state holiday.

"Thursday is a blessed day for us because Friday comes next," Sheik Ahmed al Samurraie told worshipers at Um al Qura mosque, known for its staunchly conservative Sunni Islamic views. "If it's Friday and Saturday now, we're scared that in the future it could become Saturday and Sunday, just like European countries."

Many Iraqis sat out the debate and simply enjoyed the day. They didn't have to use precious fuel to drive anywhere and even if they did, faced fewer traffic snarls. Iraqis ate lunch together, planned picnics or visited relatives. Iraqi marriages are typically on Thursday nights, so many families welcomed two full days to recover from raucous wedding parties.

Then there's a special benefit for Iraqis: one less day outdoors as a target for car bombers, kidnappers and assassins.

"I prefer this. I know my wife and kids are home," said Hassan Salim, a 44-year-old supermarket owner. "I don't have to worry so much."


(Knight Ridder special correspondents Mohammed al Awsy, Huda Ahmed and Yasser Salihee contributed to this story.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.