Monday, January 26, 2004

FALLUJAH, Iraq — America’s next big battle may be waged in the cassette and CD players of Iraqis.

Americans have flooded the nation’s airwaves with harmless Western and Arab pop tunes, but many are drawn more to the catchy rhythms of crooners such as Sabah al-Jenabi.

“America has come and occupied Baghdad,” he sings in one popular number. “The army and people have weapons and ammunition. Let’s go fight and call out the name of God.”

U.S.-led coalition authorities have barred the media from promoting any kind of violence, but there is a hot market in the bazaars of central Iraq for cassettes by singers calling for insurrection.

“The men of Fallujah are men of hard tasks,” Mr. al-Jenabi sings in a dialect decipherable only to people in the Sunni Muslim heartland cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. “They paralyzed America with rocket-propelled grenades. May God protect them from [U.S.] airplanes.”

Though the lyrics are contemporary, the music is based on a kind of centuries-old religious music called praising, which is influenced by an ancient form of Islamic mysticism called Sufism.

Such songs have appeal even for Iraqis who generally support the U.S. presence in their country, such as driver Ahmad Hossein, who plays Mr. al-Jenabi’s songs in his car.

“I like the music and the lyrics,” said Mr. Hossein, a member of the Shi’ite majority that was oppressed under dictator Saddam Hussein. “I don’t know why. I don’t agree with what it’s saying. It just makes me feel good.”

Dan Senor, a spokesman for the coalition, told reporters recently that “any sort of public expression used in an institutionalized sense that would incite violence against the coalition or Iraqis” is banned.

Yet, CD shops and cassette stalls do brisk business selling albums by Mr. al-Jenabi and other promoters of jihad, or holy war, for about 2,000 Iraqi dinars — less than $1.25 — apiece.

At Sabah Recordings, a popular cassette shop in a Fallujah alleyway, owner Maher al-Ajrari initially denied that he sold Mr. al-Jenabi’s music. But after an hour of conversation, he admitted that the resistance tapes are best sellers.

Mr. Ajrari even carries multimedia “video” versions of the CDs, in which the anti-U.S. tunes are accompanied by footage of American troops killing and maiming Iraqis.

Mr. Ajrari said he has no anti-U.S. agenda. “We sell these just for business and for commercial profit.”

The music succeeds by tapping into the rage of the nation’s Sunni minority, who lost their privileged position because of the war and feel abused by Americans.

But even some of the Sunni praisers think it is too soon to be calling for war.

Seyed Abdullah Hassani is a Sufi praiser who sings and plays the daf, a big hand-held drum. His family has been praising for 30 generations, and he ticks off the names of his forefathers from memory.

Followers come to his book-filled office and ask him to sing a few words about Allah, a deceased relative or a newborn child in return for a small donation.

Mr. Hassani said many of those using music to promote jihad are pretenders with no real spiritual credentials.

A real jihad has to be called for by a high-level cleric, not some artist trying to make a quick profit, he said. “The act of jihad cannot be until we have permission from God and our source of emulation.”

Mr. Hassani said that under Saddam, the praisers — who belong to secretive religious orders — were regarded with suspicion, often imprisoned or harassed by security forces.

“The Americans have come as liberators, and for that we should be grateful,” he said.

During the early 1920s, when Iraqi clerics called for jihad against British occupiers, praisers took the lead in coming up with creative resistance songs.

Mr. Hassani told the tale of his grandfather, who began inspiring guerrilla warriors with his religiously sanctioned praises against the British.

“Within a couple of years,” Mr. Hassani said, “the British fled Iraq.”

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