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IRAQ: Smokers dismayed by tough anti-smoking legislation

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With bombings and shootings still taking place on a daily basis, Iraq is not a country where people pay much heed to the health hazards of smoking.

So news that the government plans to introduce a stringent, Western-style anti-smoking law has been greeted with surprise, and considerable dismay by Iraqis accustomed to lighting up wherever and whenever they choose.

The draft law includes a ban on smoking in cafes, restaurants, clubs, and government and private offices, all places where life currently unfolds amid clouds of cigarette smoke. Penalties of $2,500 to $4,200 will be applied to violators.

"Maybe if we were leading normal lives I would consider giving up smoking," said Haidar Latif, 40, as he puffed on a cigarette in one of Baghdad's cafes. "But we are facing tough times. Our minds are tired and we need to smoke."

"Before they make such decisions, let them fix the services, the electricity, the water supply, and pave the streets," added Falah Aboud, 55, an actor who was sitting nearby. "This will only add more frustrations to our hard lives.”

The bill will still have to be adopted in Iraq's notoriously inefficient parliament, which has been sitting on vital pieces of legislation such as an oil law for years.

But legislator Saleh Mutlaq, a heavy smoker until he quit six months ago, predicts the law will pass.

Parliament is already a no-smoking institution, and based on the numbers who rush out the back door for a smoke during session breaks, nonsmokers have a slight edge, he said.

The 2005 elections brought to power many Shiite Islamists and some Sunni ones who are mostly nonsmokers on religious grounds. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki is known to be fiercely anti-smoking, and visitors to his offices have to check their cigarettes at the front gate, along with their cellphones and electronic devices.

Whether the rules could be enforced is another question.

A seat-belt law was imposed with surprising vigor last year, and has largely worked, though some macho drivers still unhitch their belts between checkpoints, hastily buckling them only when they see policemen ahead.

Persuading people to give up their nicotine habits may be a different matter, however. The militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq tried to ban smoking in areas under its control a few years ago, and it's one reason Sunnis turned against the insurgency.

"I don't think people will obey the law," said Mutlaq, the legislator. "Their problems are bigger than smoking, and the daily risk to their lives is greater than smoking."

-- Liz Sly and Caesar Ahmed in Baghdad

Photo: A smoker at a cafe in Baghdad. Credit: Saad Khalaf / Los Angeles Times

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