BAGHDAD // As the US army's Humvees and Jeeps rolled off the streets of Baghdad on June 30, and its soldiers handed over control of cities to national security forces, Iraqis danced in the streets to celebrate the departure of what many called an occupying army. But now, even as the Americans fade from view and improved security tentatively holds, the US is making its presence felt in a different way: big American cars.
"We sell approximately two to three four-wheel-drives a day in this salesroom," said Katan Kalam Ali of Hadnan Car Sales in Baghdad. "There was no such demand six months ago, but now there is a wave of Iraqis returning to the country who have got used to riding these big cars while they were abroad." This is consumption at a conspicuous level. Hummers, at US$45,000-$65,000 (Dh165,000-238,000), sell best in red and yellow.
"Young people like Hummers," said Mr Ali, "you know how they like to impress a girl, or just drive around." He points out that the vehicles designed for rough territory are perfect for Iraq's potholed roads. But it is not just practical considerations that fuel brisk sales, and not just of four-wheel-drives, but Pontiacs, Cadillacs and Chevrolets. Iraqis love to drive fast and show off, but like so much else in Iraq, this pursuit was stifled for decades by dictatorship, sanctions and war. The country's petrolheads never wanted anything too fancy while Saddam Hussein was in power. His elder son, Uday, used to keep an eye on Baghdad's streets, and if he or his henchmen saw an impressive sports car, they would frequently impound it and add it to Uday's personal collection.
After the 2003 invasion, vast taxes on foreign cars were lifted and they became more readily available. Uday was no longer around to impound them, but as intermittent sectarian violence fostered street theft and carjacking, conspicuous wealth was still not a good idea. Now that security is better, foreign cars can get into the country and the cautious feeling of confidence in Baghdad is underlined by the number of young men cruising through the streets in huge, expensive cars, pop music pouring from beefy speakers and cigarettes dangled nonchalantly from open windows.
There is even an official racing track. The Iraq Autosports Club has been resurrected amid a safer Baghdad, and dozens of young men can indulge their passion for American cars and Iraqi machismo on the first Friday of every month on a makeshift track by Jadriya Lake, South Baghdad. Idling on the edge of the track, waiting for the chicanes to be set up, Hussein "Kuji" al Amali, 23, explained how he used to bribe the Baghdad police with ice cream to close off his road and let him race his flame-red sport car against his friends' souped-up motors.
But now, he went on, at the makeshift track, "it's legal, we can do what we like". In this empty gravel lot about 200 young men gather in the morning, before the heat becomes unbearable, and the few dozen who are competing cluster around their cars, comparing notes on suspension, paint jobs - which can cost up to $1,500 - and ways to increase their engines' horsepower. The cars cost from $6,000 for a Pontiac to $25,000 for a much-coveted Ford Mustang. There are BMWs and Mitsubishis as well as the American models, but it is clear which is the favourite nation. The young men refer to the American models as "muscles cars", flexing their biceps to indicate strength.
Officials with megaphones call the cars one by one to screech through an autocross course - a serpentine track necessitating handbrake turns and eliciting cheers from the crowd. The National was loaned a red Mitsubishi, whose accessories included fake Ferrari stickers and a hood ornament, but failed to impress the audience as much as Omar Shahab, 27, a car mechanic in a Pontiac who was declared winner with a time of 41 seconds. "It feels great," he said, attributing his success to plenty of practise.
After the traffic cones were moved to create a quarter-mile track, drag racing commenced. The knockout competition in which the winner of each race stayed on was followed by what officials firmly described as "unofficial entertainment", as drivers threw up vast clouds of dust doing "doughnuts" and "burnouts"; driving in tight circles and leaving scorched tyre marks on the gravel. The idea of an official racing club has been a dream of Baghdad's car enthusiasts, said Khalid Youssef, the club secretary. But, Saddam's son Uday, who was head of the Iraqi Olympic Commission and presided over Iraq's sport, prevented them from doing anything without his permission.
The club was finally approved by the ministry of youth and sport in January 2004, but a year later, as security worsened, it was forced to close. As militia groups controlled the streets, driving a conspicuous car could result in robbery or murder. "We had to hide everything," said Luiay Luees, 27, leaning on his black Pontiac emblazoned with silver flames, "and we would never go out." But security has improved, car sales are up and the club recommenced its monthly meetings in February. Mr al Amali, the owner of the Ferrari-themed Mitsubishi, does not just use his car to impress the guys at the racing track.
"Of course girls like it when we drive in the streets," he said. "All over the world girls like it like this - especially when the car is red, and when there is bass on the stereo." * The National