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IRAQ: One province gets extended weekend — whether it wants it or not

July 14, 2008 |  8:27 am

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Another footnote to the absurdity of daily life in Iraq: On a recent Thursday I dropped by the Rafidain Bank in Amarah. I was surprised to find it closed. I was more surprised when I noticed bank employees moving about inside.

I told the guard I needed to get in to conduct some business.

"Today is a holiday," he said.

I knew of no holiday, and the weekend in Iraq begins on Friday.

"But there are employees inside," I protested.

"Today is just to do the Ministry of Finance work," he said.

No matter how hard I pressed him, he wouldn't let me in.

Asking around for an explanation, I learned that despite two weeks of military operations to restore the rule of law, Maysan province had retained its outlaw status in one respect. Of all Iraq's 18 provinces, Maysan is the only one that hadn't yielded to Baghdad's definition of the workweek.

Everywhere else, Friday and Saturday were the days of rest. Friday is the Islamic Sabbath. A few years ago, the government added Saturday as a second day off.

Under pressure from the followers of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr, the provincial council of Maysan, a predominantly Shiite region, declared Saturday unacceptable because it is the Jewish Sabbath. The weekend in Maysan was officially made Thursday and Friday.

With the return of government authority, the Maysan weekend became problematic for institutions such as banks that are under federal regulation. They had to decide whether to defy the authorities in Baghdad or the ones nearby in Maysan's capital, Amarah. Adopting a prudent course, Rafidain Bank decided to serve both masters.

The bank had employees come into work on Thursday, but did not open its doors. As a consequence, its customers got a three-day weekend away from bank services, whether they wanted it or not. It has now been a month since the beginning of Operation Herald of Peace the central government's military campaign to tame Amarah. If a clear sign of its success is needed, it appeared a few days ago when the Maysan council quietly capitulated to Baghdad. It decided that Friday and Saturday would be the province's official weekend. Now I can do my banking on Thursday again.

By Haydar al-Alak in Amarah

Photo: Rafidain Bank in the southern city of Amarah is closed as officials work out when the weekend starts. Credit: Haydar al-Alak / Los Angeles Times