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Iraq: Muslims Look Forward To First Post-Hussein Ramadan

Muslims around the world are preparing to mark the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. The holiday -- a time for fasting and inner reflection -- has special meaning this year in Iraq, where people will mark Ramadan for the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Baghdad, 27 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqis today will mark the first holy month of Ramadan of the post-Saddam era.

Ramadan, which begins with the first sighting of the new crescent moon, marks the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Representing the time when the Koran was sent down from heaven, it is considered the most important Islamic holiday, and follows strict traditions.

During Ramadan, observing Muslims can neither eat nor drink from sun-up to sundown. Smoking and sexual relations are also forbidden during the daytime. At the end of each day, the fast is broken with prayer and the iftar, a celebratory meal.

For many Iraqis, this year's Ramadan will be especially significant. Saddam Hussein's largely secular regime flouted many Islamic traditions. Rasha, a Shi'a woman in her twenties, says Ramadan was no exception.

"[Hussein] would set the day when we should start the fast. He said 'That is the day.' For example, if [he decided] it was on Monday, he would say that Ramadan would start on Monday," Rasha said. "Our Shi'a imam maybe would say it's on Tuesday or Wednesday, but [Saddam] said Monday."

In Baghdad during Ramadan, a cannon will be fired every evening to mark the end of the fast. The U.S.-led campaign to oust Hussein has left the capital largely deprived of law and order. But many Iraqis say that even people who are happy to disregard traffic lights and other rules will adhere to the traditions of Ramadan.

The day-long fast means limited working hours for restaurants, coffeehouses, and other food vendors. The Iraqi governing Council has issued rules on how restaurants should function during the holy month, and people like Daman Abdul Karim, who manages the Al-Azam restaurant in the Mansur neighborhood of western Baghdad, says he is happy to observe the restrictions.

"The working hours, of course, will change. The working hours [will be] as the Governing Council has ordered," said Karim. "All restaurants will be closed during Ramadan and restaurants will open half an hour before the breaking of the fast."

Karim says his restaurant will begin working in the mid-afternoon,but will not serve food until after sundown. He also says the Al-Azam may work longer into the night than usual.

The shift may bring some losses for the restaurant, but Karim says the important thing is that Iraqis will be free to celebrate Ramadan knowing their country is free from Hussein's multidecade rule.

"It is the first Ramadan after the fall of [Hussein]. We haven't tried it yet and with God's help, Ramadan with security will have a different meaning," said Karim. "As you know, Ramadan during the night is nicer than during the daytime. People break their fast and go out, and with God's help it will be better than last year."

In recognition of Ramadan, the U.S.-led coalition will lift the midnight-4 a.m. curfew imposed in Baghdad, in order to allow city residents to follow the usual night-time tradition of visiting friends and relatives.

The U.S.-led administration also plans to give the thousands of civil servants on its payroll a $60-bonus for Ramadan. And U.S. troops throughout Iraq are being briefed on Ramadan traditions and customs in order to avoid unwittingly insulting Iraqis.

Authorities have also called for heightened vigilance during Ramadan. Agence France Press cites Iraqi Interior Minister Nuri Badran as saying Iraqi police must remain on guard during iftar. "The roads and industrial centers will come to life [at this time]," he said. "The [police] must observe suspect people or cars circulating at this hour, and watch out for people planning terrorist attacks or thefts."

For other Iraqis, concerns about Ramadan are more prosaic. Ali Taher, a young man selling grilled chicken in the Al-Yarmok district of Baghdad, says he is uncertain how and when he will be able to work during Ramadan. Still, he says, this year will be better than past Ramadan celebrations.

"This is the first Ramadan [after the fall of Hussein]. We are pleased with it; we are free now. It's not like before," said Yarmok. "Before, the police used to go around and take half a roasted chicken or a whole chicken [as a bribe] before we were allowed to open. So they would let us open at two or three o'clock, [which was illegal]."

The month-long days of fasting may not be good for Taher's business, but he says it is good for his spirit. Fasting, he says, in addition to being good for his health, is a way of expressing empathy for those less fortunate.