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Saddam-Era Iraqi Singer Makes A Comeback

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Saddam-Era Iraqi Singer Makes A Comeback

Iraq

Saddam-Era Iraqi Singer Makes A Comeback

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

SIEGEL: In Iraq, a familiar voice from the past has returned to Baghdad. A singer once famous for his songs in praise of Saddam Hussein launched a comeback tour this month. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro was there and has this report.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: State television in Saddam's day was a very boring affair. There were long programs featuring Saddam meeting with his generals, followed by more programs showing a montage of Saddam's special moments, greeting dignitaries. All this was broken up by music dedicated to Saddam.

(Soundbite of song)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Qasim Sultan was one of the most famous Saddam-era singers in Iraq. His portly figure was well-known to millions here. As were his sycophantic songs aired over and over on television. Sultan left shortly after the U.S. invasion in 2003, afraid of being killed for his visible association with the Saddam regime. He only came back this month for a comeback tour. It's night, and Baghdad's Hunting Club is packed with over 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, Qasim Sultan is one of the best singers here and he's happy he's back in Iraq.

Mr. TAKHSEEN SHAKLEY (Iraqi Officer): 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.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But some here disagree. Twenty-four-year-old Fahad Flaih says that Sultan is a mercenary who will serve any master.

Mr. FAHID FLAIH (Bar Customer): That's why he sucks, because he used to sing for Saddam, and now he sings for this government, and this government also sucks. I'm serious. I'm goddamned serious, man.

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

Ms. HYAM AL-KHAZAY'AY (Club Customer): (Through translator) 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.

GARICA NAVARRO: Maqsoud Abd Alsanjari is the director of the Hunting Club. He booked Qasam 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 today is proof of his popularity.

Mr. MAQSOUD ABD ALSANJARI (Hunting Club Director): (Through translator) Yes, Qasim Sultan was one of the singers who sang to his president, but it wasn't only Qasim Sultan that did it. Many singers did that. It was common.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In between sets, Qasam 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, he says, confident enough to return.

Mr. QASAM SULTAN (Iraqi Singer): (Through translator) There are many positive developments on the ground. It was so difficult to return to Iraq, but now I can travel alone in my own car.

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

Mr. SULTAN: (Through translator) It's true, I used to sing for Saddam, but Qasam 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.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: 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 declined, he says.

Mr. SULTAN: (Through translator) 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.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's decided he's moving back to Iraq. His break is over, he straightened his suit, and then he walks back to the stage to croon to his new audience. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.

(Soundbite of music)

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