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Saddam-Era Iraqi Singer Makes A Comeback

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Saddam-Era Iraqi Singer Makes A Comeback


Saddam-Era Iraqi Singer Makes A Comeback

Saddam-Era Iraqi Singer Makes A Comeback

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

In Iraq, a familiar voice from the past has returned to Baghdad.

Qasim Sultan was once famous for performing songs in praise of Saddam Hussein. His portly figure was well known to millions. As were his sycophantic songs, which aired over and over on television.

State television in Saddam's day was a boring affair. There were long programs featuring him meeting with his generals, followed by more programs showing a montage of him greeting dignitaries.

But all this was broken up by — music dedicated to Saddam.

Sultan left shortly after the U.S. invasion in 2003, afraid of being killed for his visible association with the Saddam regime. He returned this month for a comeback tour.

An Evening On Stage

This particular night, Baghdad's "hunting club" is packed with more than 1,000 people eating drinking and dancing. Sultan is on stage. He's sweating in his shiny suit, belting out traditional Iraqi tunes.

Located in the upscale neighborhood of Mansour, this private members club used to be where Saddam's sons Ouday and Qusay would hang out. Now, Iraq's new elite come here.

At the table where Ouday used to sit with his entourage, there is a group of senior Iraqi officials from the security services. Among them is Takhseen Shakley, the civilian spokesman for the government's security plan.

He says that whatever his past, Sultan is one of the best singers here and he's happy he's back in Iraq.

"He is not singing for Saddam, he is singing for the Iraqi people ... for Qasim, I think he is one of our famous artists and good artists," he says.

But some here disagree.

The Debate Over Sultan

Fahad Flaih, 24, says that Sultan is a mercenary who will serve any master.

"That is why he is sucks because he used to sing for Saddam and now he sings for this government, and this government also sucks," he says. "I'm serious."

Hyam al-Khaza'ay says she left before watching him perform.

"He used to sing and praise Saddam. People were getting killed and he was singing! When we see him now he reminds us of those terrible times," she says.

Maqsoud Abd Alsanjari, the director of the club, booked Sultan for his return concert. He says that like many singers of that era, Sultan was forced to perform for Saddam and the number of people who have shown up is proof of his popularity.

"Yes, Qasim al Sultan was one of the singers who sang to his president, but it wasn't only Qasim Sultan that did it," he says. "Many singers did that. It was common."

In between sets, Sultan sits surrounded by bodyguards in a private room. He says he needs the protection, as many Iraqis so visibly tied to the former regime have been assassinated. But the generally improved security situation in Baghdad made him feel confident enough to return, he says.

"There are many positive developments on ground. It was so difficult to return to Iraq. But I can move alone in my own car on the streets now," he says.

The Future For The Singer

Speaking of himself in the third person, he says he's not ashamed of his past.

"It [is] true I used to sing for Saddam, but Qasim didn't only sing for Saddam — he sang for children, for the whole country, for women. I would sing all types of songs before as well," he says.

Still, old habits die hard. And there are some people who are nostalgic for the past. The previous night, he says, he gave a private concert where people begged him to sing the old tunes. He says he declined.

"They wanted me to sing Saddam songs, but there are stages in your life, and this is a new stage. Life is just like a wave, whatever shape it takes, you should ride it," he says.

He's decided he's moving back to Iraq.

When his break is over, he straightens his suit and walks back to the stage to croon to his new audience.