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Porn Sales Provide Insight Into Iraq's Politics

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BAGHDAD — The nude women on the DVD cover in a Baghdad street stall say it all: Change, whether you like it or not, is afoot in Iraq.

Hundreds of porn DVDs are stacked elbow-deep on a wooden table in Jassim Hanoun's ramshackle stall on a downtown sidewalk. His other tables have Hollywood blockbusters, like "King Kong." But not surprisingly, it's the sex that sells best.

"I've got everything," Hanoun says of his sex selection, flashing the kind of impish grin only a 22-year-old in tight jeans and slicked-back hair can pull off with any real conviction. "What do you want? I've got foreign films, Arab, Iraqi, Indian, celebrities – whatever you like."

The porn, in an odd way, has told the story of Iraq's security and political situation since Saddam Hussein's ouster in 2003. It emerged in the anything-goes atmosphere that erupted in the vacuum immediately following the U.S. invasion – then went back into hiding amid the anarchy when armed militias roamed the capital through 2008, targeting those they saw as immoral.

Its reemergence since then reflects how security has improved but also how the fragile government is busy with more pressing issues than spicy videos.

With politicians deadlocked the past five month trying to form a new government, whether Hanoun stays in business depends less on customer demand than on who takes the reins of power and if security is maintained.

The openness with which porn is sold in some of Baghdad's streets is almost unheard of in the Arab world.

In every country in the region except Lebanon, Israel and Turkey, pornography is illegal, in a nod to conservative Muslim sentiment. That's not to say it doesn't exist – international satellite channels and the Internet pipe it straight into people's homes, though many governments try to block obscene websites. Police, not having to grapple with daily bombings like in Baghdad, have more time to keep it off the streets.

But after the 2003 invasion, it appeared freely on Baghdad's sidewalks – a sign of how all rules were suddenly sidelined with the toppling of Saddam.

Gone were the all-seeing security services that brutally ensured law and order under the former regime. In their place came a degree of jubilation and hope, even if short-lived, about the new Iraq.

For a few months after the invasion, restaurants did brisk business, nightclubs pulsated with the beat of Arabic music. And with the Western troops and their supporting army of foreign security contractors came the porn – once strictly forbidden under Saddam's regime.

Children touted it in the Green Zone, the fortified Baghdad district where the Iraqi government and the U.S. Embassy are housed. Vendors sold it outside hotels where international media were based. "Girls of the Interior Ministry" was the title one jokester put on a collection.

But the postwar hardcore boom was short-lived.

After 2004, Iraq seemed to be breaking apart into militias and armed groups. Extremist Sunni groups like al-Qaida in Iraq were at their peak, carrying out kidnappings, beheadings, suicide bombings and gun attacks.

Shiite militias dominated entire districts of the capital, and the country tipped into anarchy with a wave of sectarian violence. At the same time, Shiite militias launched a campaign of intimidation and violence targeting those selling alcohol, racy videos and any other items they considered forbidden by Islam.

"It was bad," said Ammar Jamal, owner of another DVD stall near Hanoun.

Jamal was arrested and jailed for 20 days on charges of selling immoral material in 2007.

"I got out of that business quickly," the 24-year-old says.

Now, he carries movies that promise, more than deliver, steamy scenes and glimpses of flesh – largely soft-core, with nudity but nothing to warrant an X rating. Among them, "Bare Witness," a straight-to-video erotic thriller starring Daniel Baldwin, the least known of the four Baldwin brothers, and Demi Moore's "Striptease." Each DVD, which includes several movies, costs 1,500 dinars ($1.20).

But since 2007, violence has fallen dramatically around Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, backed by U.S. troops, cracked down on militias, helping bring about some semblance of order in the capital.

Authorities currently have bigger challenges than cracking down on porn vendors or even brothels, said an Interior Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.

So Hanoun and others are back on the streets, even though he says it's still not entirely safe.

"They still threaten to kill me," Hanoun said. He shrugged his shoulders with indifference when asked who "they" are. The militias, the police, "it doesn't matter if you're dead."

It's the best job he can find, he explained, in a country where unemployment is officially pegged at slightly over 20 percent, but believed to be much higher.

And the demand is there. Hanoun unloads scores of adult movies a day – at nearly $3 each.

His stock ranges from the mundane to the startlingly extreme, including bestiality.

The titles alone – many along the lines of "The Rape of the Coeds" – offer disturbing insight into the possible psychological effects the years of indiscriminate violence have had on Iraqis.

Many have seen, if not first hand, then certainly on video and TV, children blown up, people kidnapped and beheaded and prisoners abused by U.S. forces.

The films don't show actual rapes – they're just titles tacked onto mainstream porn films downloaded from the Internet as well as homemade movies of amateur Arab couples.

In a nod to the politically elusive dream of Arab unity, Hanoun carries a collection entitled "Cheap Meat."

"It's got Syrian, Egyptian, Lebanese girls," he says. "All the Arabs."

But, in an ironic symbol of the difficulty with which Arabs have had coming together, the DVD gets stuck in a loop in the first five minutes.

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