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An Iraqi singer's bittersweet homecoming

Qassim Sultan fled soon after the U.S.-led war, but not before recording a battle song to rally troops. Now he's back, in a new Iraq where he, a Sunni, is known for the song, but cannot perform it.

September 08, 2009|Ned Parker and Caesar Ahmed | Ahmed is a Times staff writer.

BAGHDAD — This night at the Hunting Club, Qassim Sultan doesn't come on till 1 a.m. Because he wants life to be like the old days. He wants people to dance till 5 in the morning. He just has to stand on the stage and they move for him, the way they did at parties on cruise boats down the Tigris River before the war.

In the crowd, women who look like Bettie Page, all jet-black hair and thick blue eye shadow, dance with men in double-breasted khaki suits. A chain of couples swing their hands high and kick their feet, grinning giddily, perhaps slightly tipsy from the beers and whiskeys at their tables.

A loose suit framing his blocky body, Sultan twirls the microphone, his cheeks puffed out, his lips pursed into a small O. "I melt in your arms, I miss you. In our house we spent time," he sings. "How can I describe my life before meeting you?"

Perhaps he thinks briefly about the past, remembers the time he was beaten in this white ballroom on the orders of Saddam Hussein's son. He smiles at the band, spins toward the golden lights illuminating the stage.

He launches into a medley of classics, but everyone knows there's one he won't sing.

No one cries out for it -- that could sign your death warrant -- but it hangs in the air: "Go Ahead and Depend on Your Men," a song of war and defiance recorded the day before U.S. airstrikes on Iraq six years ago.

With it, a romantic crooner cut from the cloth of a 1950s-era Sinatra became the man who sang Hussein's last anthem.

"Go for it and watch the assaults of men. They have unbreakable swords," went the song. "We will remove America from the map."

The 41-year-old still labels it his finest hour as an artist.

"I'd sing it for President Talabani or Prime Minister Maliki," he says. "If there was an invasion of the country, I would sing it. It is a battle song."

But he won't now. There are some things he knows he cannot do, that go unspoken, that conjure up the old days. He has refused to perform the song for many years now, because he always dreamed of coming home.

His decision to return to Baghdad after six years is in its own way a measure of the country's slow recovery from war. Today, Shiite Muslim religious parties are the most powerful force in Iraq; to live here is to accept that. Sultan, who once cast his lot with Hussein's government, has to entrust his fate to Iraq's new rulers.

His homecoming is fraught with peril. Men in the shadows with links to political parties have killed people like Sultan. They could do so again.

The song came from Sultan's heart. He remembers the moment in the spring of 2003 when he composed the melody in a phone call with his lyricist. He banged away at his keyboard as he listened to the words. He had already bragged to friends that he would write the greatest song of the war.

Days earlier he had performed at one of Uday Hussein's late-night parties and listened to the dictator's maniacal son say that if they could make it to the summer without a U.S. attack, the regime might remain intact. If not, catastrophe awaited.

In the hours before U.S. warplanes roared across the sky and dropped their bombs, the regime demanded that Sultan make a video of the song.

"We will raise our flags on the stars. Go for it, Uday and Qusai. With you in the dark, your sons will be the light. Iraq with its zealousness has no limits," Sultan sings with a clownish smile and twinkling eyes in the video.

Images of Sultan in a gray robe surrounded by malnourished looking uniformed soldiers alternate with footage of a scowling Saddam Hussein firing off a hunting rifle and cone-shaped Scud missiles primed to launch.

The song played on state television and radio for nearly two weeks, and the video of the puckish Sultan practically skipping and twirling his rifle rallied Hussein's supporters until U.S. warplanes bombed the government's broadcast studios.

As United States military tanks patrolled Baghdad and Saddam Hussein's sworn enemies rose to influence, Sultan was seen as Uday Hussein's singer. Within three months, he left, flying to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, and into a life of exile, singing his way through parties around the world.

Even if they loved him, many of his fans regarded Sultan as a buffoonish collaborator. But he scoffs at people's perceptions of his life and its so-called luxuries.

"They didn't know what happened behind closed doors."

All Qassim Sultan ever wanted to do was sing.

He came from humble origins in west Baghdad's working-class district of Hurriya, with its monochrome brown stucco villas. He learned he had a gift in sixth grade when his class sang weekly at flag-raising ceremonies. His tenor floated in the air, bending notes like honey.

Soon, he joined music clubs and teenage rock bands. He loved "Hotel California" by the Eagles, "Careless Whisper" by Wham! and Julio Iglesias' balladry. Alone, at home, he would strum their songs on his guitar. Even now, with little prompting, he will croon Lionel Richie: "Hello, is it me you're looking for?"

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