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Speeding motorcycles, wheelies provide war relief

  • Story Highlights
  • Hundreds gather every Friday at parking lot to watch motorcycles speed by
  • Drivers, spectators alike say it lifts their spirits amid the war
  • Spectator: "I decided to go outside and live my life"
  • Driver says racing provides relief: "People are happy and comfortable"
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From Mohammed Tawfeeq
CNN
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Ali Jawhar streaked across the pavement on his yellow motorcycle and popped a wheelie. Hundreds of onlookers whistled wildly and shouted in glee at the yellow blur before them. He was followed by other motorcycle enthusiasts who performed similar stunts before the testosterone-filled crowd in Iraq.

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Ali Jawhar says he loves popping wheelies in front of the crowd in Baghdad, Iraq.

Jawhar said he would never drive his bike so crazily anywhere else in Baghdad. Doing so would put his life at risk because security forces would think he's a terrorist or an outlaw.

"But here, I can do whatever I want," he said.

Jawhar and other bikers are taking part in newfound freedom in a central Baghdad parking lot, thanks to an improved security situation in the Iraqi capital. Photo See Iraqis pop wheelies, burn rubber »

The better security can be attributed to many factors: the U.S.-led surge that has put more troops across Baghdad and clamped down on insurgents; better-trained Iraqi security forces who guard more checkpoints; and the establishment of predominantly Sunni "Awakening Councils," often made up of former militants, aimed at going after al Qaeda.

And so spectators flock to this makeshift race track every Friday, lining up hours before the 3 p.m. start time for an afternoon of entertainment and relief from the war. They crowd around the only entrance into the parking lot. Most of the participants are motorcyclists, but some bring their cars to burn rubber. Video Watch bikes zip, tires spin, fans cheer »

When they arrive, the crowd chants: "Our heroes are coming! Our heroes are coming!"

It costs nothing to attend. The racers don't win anything either -- other than the hearts and minds of those watching.

Sarmad Sadiq, 22, said he couldn't bear sitting at home any longer. When he heard about the Friday motorcycle festivities, he was excited.

"I was bored of staying home," he said. "I needed some change."

Raad Kamal, another spectator, echoed that sentiment. "I expect anything, car bombs or suicide bombers. But if I decided to stay in the house all the time, then it means I am a dead man, and I do not want to be a dead man. I decided to go outside and live my life."

The amateur racing first started in 2005, but after a few months it came to an abrupt halt amid fears that spectators would get killed by car bombs or motorcycles rigged with explosives. But toward the end of 2007, the races resumed amid the city's improved security environment.

The young Iraqis come from various Baghdad neighborhoods and gather in the parking lot next to a highway bridge and near an Iraqi army base.

The festivities aren't sponsored by the government, but it does occur under the watchful guise of Iraqi troops. Iraqi soldiers ring the event and check the vehicles for explosives at the sole entrance. Such racing wasn't allowed under the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Ali Imad, a 24-year-old motorcycle mechanic who takes part in the races, said he has an "odd love" for motorcycles and simply enjoys the recreation, especially popping wheelies for the crowd.

"Life is difficult and hard and suffering. We had sectarianism. Thanks be to God, we overcame that," he said.

In the parking lot amid the whirl of engines, he said, "People are happy and comfortable."

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Ali Mohammed, a 22-year-old driver, said the fun is worth the security risks. "Iraqis are fed up with concerns [of being attacked]. Therefore, we do not care any more."

He added, "Friday was a boring day until we organized that race."
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