After Saddam

AFTER BAGHDAD FELL to the American forces, freedom intoxicated the Iraqis and made them wild. Their actions defied common sense. People wandered through bombed-out buildings, the ruins of the three-story intelligence ministry offices, foraging for a sheet of paper, writing on a wall, or any evidence of what had happened to relatives who had disappeared twenty years earlier. The searchers carried wax candles, matches, and flashlights, hoping to find a tunnel leading to secret prisons buried deep beneath the Tigris River.

Meanwhile, in the Palestine Hotel’s dining room, waiters in bow ties and black suits served breakfast omelets to Iraq’s new self-declared rulers. Muhammad Mohsen al-Zubaidi, the self-appointed mayor of Baghdad, a man with a body like a badger, entered behind a phalanx of men in green army uniforms and took a long table in a corner of the room. Instead of a traditional white tribal robe, he wore a blue blazer and slacks, as if by donning the right clothes, anyone could reinvent themselves in Baghdad that spring after the American invasion.

When he was done eating, al-Zubaidi plunged through the mob thronged outside, and then in his Japanese pickup truck moved past hundreds of middle-aged men and women demanding food and jobs. His route took him past the shuttered stores of Sadoun Street and Mansour district’s manicured lawns. Along the way, he paused to speak to citizens and scribble notes about ways to rebuild the city. But after a week of city tours and breakfast strategy sessions, he was detained by the Americans. His friends had warned him. The Americans said he had no authority to make himself mayor.

Reporting on life in the city, I roamed the streets. In residential areas, men and women came out and grabbed me because they wanted to talk. They wanted to testify. Their shouts were those of people who felt they’d never been listened to before.

In Baghdad’s Shiite Khadamiyah neighborhood, a woman, named Umm Faraj, ushered me into her apartment. In her darkened living room, there was a couch, a coffee table, and a painting of a souk. In the kitchen we sat at a white plastic table. She didn’t wait for a question. She spoke rapidly in an angry voice about her fifteen-year-old son Kareem, arrested in 1980 on suspicion of being a member of the Shiite Dawa Party.

“He was only a boy,” she said and recited the facts of his case. He disappeared after school, and the government never told her what had happened to him. She wanted me to help find him. “I’m a simple housewife,” she said. “Saddam or anyone else doesn’t matter to me.”

As she talked, a neighbor knocked at the door. My presence had caused a stir outside. People waited their turn to speak to me. The neighbor, who called himself Haidar, introduced himself as a doctor at Abu Ghraib prison but said he had quit his post two months earlier. He grinned and diverted the conversation from the woman’s son and spoke about his old work. “We took good care of the prisoners,” he said, smiling, watching me. “They had tuberculosis, scabies. They needed surgery from prison fights.”

I thought about a man I had met hours earlier roaming an abandoned intelligence ministry prison. His hair was shaved close to his scalp, and his arms were carved up with red scabs from knife fights. He said he had come back to the prison because it was home. I wondered to myself what Haidar’s duties in prison had been. He chattered on and flashed a smile. “All the prisoners had full rights and lived peacefully. It was like a city.”

The conversation died out. Dusk was coming on. I told them I had to go. Haidar squeezed my hand and said I must come back. He grinned. “Outside this country, people have much false information about our ways. Be careful what you write; we can kill you.”

As spring turned to summer, Iraq took on a drunken quality. A phrase or gesture could trigger a flight of ecstasy in anyone. At an artist’s café, a man would suddenly blurt, “Now is the time for love and sex!” and then down another shot of the chalk-colored liquor called araq, afterward falling silent.

In a shop where barbers snipped babies’ umbilical cords and offered medical advice as well as haircuts, the owner laughed because he had known Saddam Hussein as a young man. The barber had given the boy Saddam an injection for tonsillitis and now claimed the dictator had the blackest ass he had ever seen. The barbers cackled loudly about Saddam’s black ass, carried away even in 120-degree heat, beads of sweat running down their necks, a generator humming to keep the light on. In this same neighborhood, a year later, hooded insurgents would blow up tanks and drag government employees from cars to execute them.

Amid this rising chaos, I met Bashar, who had been a driver for Saddam Hussein’s youngest daughter, Hala. Bashar’s hair was gray, and a smile was firmly planted beneath his dyed-black mustache. Mischief lit his eyes, but if there was evil in him, it didn’t show.

Bashar was a grocer’s son. He had studied to be an electrician and then found a desk job at Iraq’s communications ministry. He quickly won over regime security agents with his good humor. He was a cousin of Iraq’s industry minister, Abu Tawab Mulla al-Awaysh, so the agents considered him minhoom—one of their own. He’d go out with them at night, and they’d admire his prodigious appetites. Bashar could devour an entire roasted carp, shoveled down with a disc of flat bread soaked in lemon, and sip whiskey beneath a full moon by the Tigris River. He ate with single-minded focus. He’d put his hand to his heart and swear in oath to them Habibi, Habibi, a word of love, friendship, and flattery.

Because he flattered, because he charmed, because he was in awe of their power, and most important because he was minhoom, it was arranged for Bashar to join the lower rung of Saddam’s security entourage. He felt flattered that he, a simple grocer’s son, had climbed his way up the social ladder.

He had been assigned to the security detail of Jamal Abdullah Mustafa, Hala’s husband. Bashar had his own car, and his team cruised commercial boulevards. They conducted surveillance to make sure routes were safe for Abdullah Mustafa. For Bashar, the ride was mainly an opportunity to gaze at the capital’s women, who dressed like Farrah Fawcett with long bangs, bell-bottoms, and loose blouses.

He’d stroll up to a shop where a woman was standing and buy a Pepsi. But if he stopped too long to talk, he would get scolded. “My boss would demand, ‘Who was that girl you were talking to.’ He’d tell me, ‘You were having some fun with that girl. Don’t do that.’ ”

Such chastisements rolled off Bashar. He’d find a new girl to chase. Despite his mischief, or because of it, Bashar pleased his superiors. Jamal Abdullah Mustafa asked him to chauffeur Hala to her girlfriends’ houses.

Life with Hala was a glorious party. Bashar traveled with her to ornate palaces, family gatherings in Tikrit, and ranches thick with palm groves south of the capital. They spent days by shimmering chlorine-blue pools and pruned rosebushes. He would lower his head and fall to a hush when Hala’s friends in their smart dresses and business suits arrived for fetes. Well into the post-Saddam years, if Bashar drove up to Tikrit, he’d be greeted warmly by locals who remembered him.

“These are my people,” he would say proudly.

When he talked about the Hussein family’s parties, his eyebrows would rise, and his black mustache would stretch at the corners. He remembered Uday walking his tiger on a chain by a glistening pool. He claimed that women flocked around the man, then after the war they cursed him for his sadistic predatory rapes. “Ah, the parties, the women, it was beautiful,” Bashar would rhapsodize, knowing I’d laugh at his bombast.

Hala’s family adored Bashar. Hala’s husband affectionately called him “my hero.” “Saddam told me whenever he saw me, If you want to marry a girl, I’ll recommend some ladies. You should marry three or four times. If you marry three or four times, you are a real man.”

The regime even gave him a small house in the exclusive Baghdad district surrounding Saddam’s Republican palace. It was here that Bashar kept his second wife, a young girl named Huda, who was in her twenties, while his older wife, furious at him for humiliating her, was banished to live with his relatives.

But the leisure days of chauffeuring Hala ground to a halt as the 2003 war approached. There was no farewell, no speech. He didn’t watch a Mercedes drive away, or get a wave from the perfumed, soft-skinned girl then only twenty-three, the apple of her father’s eye.

“They just disappeared all of a sudden. We were ordered not to ask questions.”

Bashar continued to drive to work and would find himself waiting beneath the crystal chandeliers, or wandering the grounds, emptied of bosses. If he didn’t show up for work one day or the next, there was no one to ask where he’d been, and finally he stopped going.

He bade good-bye to the gilded life and moved in with his second wife’s family in western Baghdad. He secretly wished for war.

“I’d look at neighboring countries. They lived quiet lives, not what we were leading. We were considered unwelcome all over the globe. I wanted the situation to change, I wanted Iraq to be welcome in the world,” he told me on a visit to my hotel, long after it became clear that the new Iraq was a failure.

When U.S. warplanes launched air strikes, he’d climb on the roof of his father-in-law’s home and watch the jets drop bombs. The explosions rattled the city. “There was something inside me when the Americans were approaching. I hoped the Americans would make the situation better. Because I had in my mind that America was a civilized and progressive country. Americans were a people that did not allow injustice. I thought America would change Iraq into a country of dreams. I thought it was true America would make Iraq a model for the Middle East. I told myself, let us bear the burden of these strikes.”

He cursed the Baath Party every time a bomb fell on one of the government’s drab brown buildings. White smoke puffed up, and he’d recall an indignity some official had inflicted on him, a lackey who had called him stupid or had made fun of his weight. He said he liked the idea of the Americans kicking them with their boots.

But he never blamed Saddam. To blame Saddam was to blame himself. Saddam and he were both victims.

“I’m sure the feelings I have now are what Saddam has,” he told me as we sat on my hotel balcony in the spring of 2005, the smell of diesel fuel wafting through the air. Bashar pictured Saddam locked up in a hangar somewhere on the white desert of the Baghdad airport, ruminating about the people massacred in his name, about the advisors who betrayed him.

Bashar’s voice would squeak and his eyes water when he defended Saddam. He’d curse Saddam’s cronies—his paternal cousin “Chemical Ali,” his half-brother Barzan al-Tikriti, and others.

“They would arrest innocent people and torture them. Saddam didn’t know about it. No one would tell him what was going on. When Saddam knew, he punished the wrongdoers. Saddam was only one man, and Iraqis are many.”

In the first months after the U.S. invasion, Bashar was much happier than he would be later. At first, no longer fearing the government’s secret police, he wandered Baghdad looking freely for women. Others would celebrate freedom sitting up late at night on bridges clinking beer bottles to the rattle of an Arabic pop song, but Bashar chased love.

He had taken a job driving contractors, journalists, and aid workers, but his work, like everything else about the occupation, served mainly as a chance for romance. He trusted women more than he trusted men. He counseled, “Men will always stab you in the back, but women will give you a beautiful life and make you happy.”

Once on a visit to a Baghdad hospital, he decided to pose as a reporter and interview a pretty nurse. “I told her I was a journalist, and I started asking her questions for a story. Her age? She answered, Twenty-five. Married? Divorced with kids. Can you sneak out? She answered, I can say I’m on duty at the hospital.

“Tell me about your sex temperature,” Bashar went on. “Be accurate and precise, because I like my sex precise, and if you can’t talk frank, leave it. Keep in mind, the story will not be published. She answered, My body sex temperature is 1000 percent, fucked from front and behind.”

That July, amid the constant power blackouts, Bashar liked to visit his neighbors, who had a young daughter in her early twenties. The parents doted on Bashar. They had no idea that he wanted to seduce their daughter. When the U.S. military impounded their car, Bashar lied to impress the parents by saying he had talked to U.S. officials, who promised to return the vehicle. By chance, the very next day, the girl’s parents received a notice from the Americans telling them to come pick up their car. The parents believed that this was thanks to Bashar, and they welcomed him whenever he visited, so it was easy for him to talk to their beautiful daughter.

“It was a sizzling July,” he recalled fondly.

But even Bashar had moments when he lost faith in the occupation. He seethed when he saw U.S. soldiers search houses, or when he heard news reports about civilians being shot dead. His face reddened, and his voice cracked. “I’m a simple man, but I am sure Americans came to Iraq without a plan. They were just having a showdown with Saddam. They are not doing us any good. They are hurting us.”

In January 2004, the United States introduced cell phones, and Bashar’s life changed radically. Now he could pursue his love affairs at all hours. He’d look for a woman on the street, catch her eye, and then drop his phone number, which he had written on a piece of paper. He could tell by how her eyes studied him if she would call.

He bragged that he had phone sex with half a dozen women, and then his boasts would be interrupted by a telephone call—proof of his exploits. “I’ll see you today. Probably this evening, I’ll come to you my love, my life, my soul,” he’d coo into the receiver.

The woman he adored most was a twenty-year-old girl he met in the Mansour shopping district. “I was sitting in my car, she was walking with her mother. She looked at me in a beautiful way. She gazed at me. She beckoned my attention. I wrote my number on a piece of paper and dropped it by her. She took it, and I knew she’d like to have an affair with me.”

His eyes beamed, and his lips curled up as he recounted his conquest. “When she phoned me, I didn’t remember her. She said, ‘The fact you didn’t remember me means you have many girls,’ ” he laughed. “I told her I was surprised because I didn’t have affairs. Talking to her, I warmed her up. I could see she was responding. After three phone calls, I started talking to her in a sexy way. I told her my problem is I like women and beautiful ladies. I made clear to her I’m the sort of man who enjoys watching blue movies and satellite channels every day.”

As the violence and destruction in Iraq escalated, cell phone calls became Bashar’s lifeline. By the spring of 2005, his Baghdad neighborhood, al-Dura, had turned into a war zone. The phone sex allowed him to forget when a bomb ripped a nearby checkpoint and to lay aside for a while his worries about being kidnapped.

“Terrorists are watching me. I can’t even trust my neighbors,” he told me on one visit. “They are on the street and sidewalk watching everyone’s movements.”

But his female companions brightened his mood. He was proud he had so many young women in love with him. “I ask them, Doesn’t it bother you I’m so much older? but they tell me, ‘I like a man of your age and personality who shows respect for ladies.’ Every day, they wish to see me, but the problem is I have no time.”

Then he just laughed. A talented mimic, he started to rush through his impersonations of Iraqis. His feet shuffled on my hotel balcony, and he shouted the word Sunni. His elbows hooked up as if he was lugging a giant jug of whiskey, and then he pretended to take a sip and dance, shaking his hips. Next he giggled the word Shiite and transformed himself into a religious pilgrim, beating his broad chest and wiping imaginary tears from his eyes. Then he shouted the word Americans and did a martial dance, thrusting his legs in the air and yelling, “Yeah, yeah.” For good measure, he shouted French and mimed dancing with a beautiful woman, kissing her. He was mocking how the promise of the first post-Saddam summer had opened something inside him and then had vanished.

In the summer of 2004, a young Iraqi man named Ammar drove around Wasit province southeast of Baghdad translating for the Americans. He traveled in a shiny white U.S. Army pickup truck and handed crisp hundred dollar bills to contractors hired by the United States to renovate a youth center and an army base. The Americans had arrived in Ammar’s town, Azaziyah, earlier, in the first week of April. Friends knocked on his door to tell him, and they raced ten minutes through the street to see the GIs, who were wearing black face paint and standing by a tank. Ammar moved close to them. One of them asked, “Does anybody speak English?” Ammar answered, “Yes. Here I am” and started shouting, “Long live Bush! Long live Bush!” Ammar’s friends were afraid. They said, “You’re crazy. Maybe this is a plot, and you’re going to lose your life.”

But he kept shouting, and soon others joined him. The soldiers snapped photographs of Ammar as he pumped his fists and chanted Bush’s name. In the end, he was given a job translating for the Americans. “I saw no future for myself under Saddam. Life would have been tougher than it is now,” he told me much later.

His family had paid a high price under the old regime. Three of his siblings had been arrested. One was jailed for going on a religious pilgrimage to the Shiite holy city of Karbala, the second had been locked up trying to locate him, while the third, a taxi driver, had been jailed for giving a ride to a counterfeiter.

Ammar, the youngest of twenty-two siblings, recalled how one of his older brothers had hidden in their parents’ home for eight years to avoid being conscripted during the 1980–1988 Iran-Iraq war. The brother slept in the house during the day and walked the streets late at night. His skin turned white, and he never shaved. To kill time, he studied the Koran and became obsessed with classical Arabic. In July 1988, when Ammar was eight, his brother decided to leave the house in daylight, just to get outside and swim in an irrigation ditch. Baath Party members saw him, and the next day, they came to the family’s house and arrested him. Their father paid off the police and judge, and the brother managed to spend only a year in jail.

Ammar’s family was Shiite. They worshiped the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein, while the country’s ruling Sunni Muslim elite did not. At Mustansariyah University in Baghdad, Ammar noticed how the Sunni students whose families ranked high in the Baath Party had cars, money, and nice clothes. Likewise, he thought it was the Sunni professors, not the Shiite ones, who headed academic departments. What awaited him after university was equally discouraging: he would be forced to join the army, which paid nothing, and the officers would drill recruits for hours, then catch them when they fell asleep, slap them awake, make them strip, and douse them with water.

When the Americans came, his three brothers returned home from prison. For the first time since the mid-1970s, Shiites could openly celebrate the religious festival of Ashura, which commemorated the killing of Hussein in 680 AD. Ammar and his three brothers decided to join thousands of pilgrims marching to Karbala, where Hussein was slaughtered. The pilgrims recited songs telling the story of how Hussein was summoned by the tribes of Karbala to overthrow the wicked ruler Yazid and then was betrayed. As Ammar and his brothers marched, they beat their chests in rhythm, chanting hymns, begging forgiveness for the Shiite icon’s death. They wept for Hussein, recounting how his loyal fighters were cut down by Yazid’s thousands on horseback. The crowd of pilgrims moved their arms and legs in unison, gliding like a chorus in a Michael Jackson video.

Plastered on the walls of the towns along the pilgrims’ path were posters of Hussein and his father, Ali—images of leonine faces, with stone-black eyes; pursed, rosy, feminine lips; shoulder-length black hair; and ivy-green tunics. Hussein and Ali posed with swords—holy men painted against a backdrop of emerald forests, peachy sunsets, and glistening waterfalls. For every new portrait posted of Hussein, a portrait of Saddam disappeared. Overnight, the murals of Saddam in a kaffiyeh, Saddam in a white business suit, Saddam in a fedora, Saddam with roses were replaced by the angular face of Hussein.

In Karbala, the golden domed mosques of Hussein and his half-brother, Abbas, shared a plaza, and videos blared with reenactments of the battle of Karbala, showing men butchered on desert plains by galloping horsemen. Fountains spouted water dyed red. Around the main plaza, men dressed in black for martyrdom walked in procession, their eyes emptied of all but their love for Hussein. They whipped themselves with linked chains called zinjails, which resembled Chinese ninchucks. The flagellants pricked their foreheads with the dull edge of knives. Blood streamed down their faces, and they wept. But the chains and daggers were too much for Ammar. The spectacle disgusted him. He told himself he was too educated for such backward rituals. As a child, he had wanted to grow up to be a cleric. His parents hoped he would enter a seminary to study the Koran, but instead he chose university because he decided he wanted to meet girls. But he never let go of his fascination with the clergy. He prayed five times a day toward Mecca and fasted for the holy month of Ramadan. Then, at the festival at Karbala, he watched men swallowed up in their love for Hussein, and he felt apart from them. Later, he recalled how he had once worshiped the ayatollahs, how he had admired their devotion to the Koran, how he had believed there was no higher calling on earth, and then he would think, “I used to be a good Muslim.” And he laughed in disbelief that he had ever walked on pilgrimage.

When his university held exams in the summer, the U.S. Army captain Ammar translated for let him leave Azaziyah for a week. Then, in the fall, he returned to Baghdad for his final year of school and worked for a contractor, renting Nissan pickup trucks and Toyota Land Cruisers to U.S. forces. He traveled north with deliveries to an expansive air base renamed Camp Anaconda by the Americans and befriended some of the officers. They gave him cash to get them souvenirs, such as carpets, Saddam watches, and Baghdad leather jackets.

With his job, Ammar had money to buy new clothes: designer jeans, black slacks with pinstripes, and matching shoes. He purchased a powder-blue Toyota station wagon, with a CD player, and he’d punch up the latest Arabic pop song by Nancy Ashram and Sheikh Khaled. Once he’d been poor and could never go out. Now he could speed his car through Baghdad’s main streets and drive from café to café or park on a bridge.

He was friends with a girl named Heba from the university. She had black hair to her shoulders and wore bell-bottom jeans and white blouses. They studied English together and sometimes met after school. They talked about how they didn’t want to be like anyone else or fall in love only because their parents had chosen a partner for them. Heba thought Ammar was funny and liked how he always dressed in bright clothing. He talked about how they should spend time together, without being burdened by promises.

They invented lies so they could start meeting secretly. He drove her to safe places like Karrada, a Christian neighborhood, and found quiet side streets, with shuttered shops. He parked and covered the Toyota’s windows with curtains and a cardboard sun shield, and they pushed down the car seats and fumbled, arranging their spindly arms and legs until they were comfortable. Ammar never worried that a police officer, a thief, or a soldier might come by. He and Heba felt safe enough, or he managed to convince her, anyway, with his pleading and his confidence. After several nighttime interludes, Heba decided she loved him and started asking about marriage. Ammar accused her of breaking their pledge to experiment, and the pair agreed to stop their sessions. After that, she kept phoning him, but he ignored the calls.

On his job, he started coming in contact with foreign women. There was Debbie, a slim blonde from Britain, with deep blue eyes, who was always aggressive and said what she thought. She worked for a charity and used expressions that made no sense to him. She liked the word minging. She told him it meant something was disgusting. He bought her little leather shoes and sandals that showed her painted toenails and gave her three white shirts. When she left the country, he insisted on driving her to the airport, although the route was Baghdad’s most dangerous road. It had once been decorated by palm groves, but U.S. soldiers had bulldozed the trees to get rid of hiding places for insurgents, and now the median consisted of black dirt and occasional sticks of grass. Burnt-out cars littered the sides of the road. At the airport, Iraqi and Nepalese security guards waved Ammar and Debbie into a special line filled with jeeps driven by bodyguards wearing sunglasses. A dog sniffed the Toyota, and a mirror was passed beneath it in a search for bombs.

Finally, Ammar pulled into a lot enclosed by wire mesh. As he and Debbie waited for the bus that would take her the rest of the way to her flight, she asked him what was wrong, and he started to cry. He confessed that he loved her and said he didn’t know what to do. She spoke to him softly and said she considered him a friend. She told him she had a boyfriend back in London, he needed to understand that, and she hugged him good-bye.

After Debbie, there were a few foreign women he liked, but none like her. Sometimes, he’d call her in London to tell her what he had been doing, how things were getting better or worse. Even on the phone, he marveled at how free she was in her talk, whether she was declaring her hate of a pop star or her love of snowboarding in the Swiss Alps. He knew she could never love him, but he wanted to impress her.

It is May 2005, the sky is a mix of pink and violet, the Tigris River has turned to a thick dark brown, as it does in the late afternoon. The smell of sewage grows with the day. Ammar is visiting me because he is bored. He is mulling his options for a Thursday night, the beginning of his weekend. “If I have one day off in Baghdad, I feel myself lost. I don’t know where to go. There are no places to have fun.” He no longer cares that Friday is the Muslim holy day when the faithful go to worship. He says: “I’m finished now with praying.” He can’t visit his parents in Azaziyah, southeast of Baghdad. To visit them, he would have to cross the triangle of death, Baghdad’s southern belt, rife with rebel checkpoints, where a gunman might pull you out of a car and shoot you in the head. His mother asks him not to visit; she doesn’t want her son to risk his life on the eighty-kilometer trip. If just to feel settled, he toys with the idea of getting married. He likes one Iraqi girl, but he can only meet with her in the afternoon between two and five because her parents are afraid to let her out of the house. “I told her I loved her. But she started saying my family wants this, wants that, and then I felt she wasn’t in love with me. I felt lost,” he says.

He thinks about the women he knows from overseas and wishes for romantic love. “Iraqi girls want to marry for stability. They’re not really in love. They just want to get rid of problems,” he says. “I want to marry a foreigner.” He could do what he often does on Thursday nights, drive to his friend’s clothing shop in Zaiuna, where he meets two of his old schoolmates. They studied English literature together at Mustansariyah University. They used to go to cafés to smoke a water pipe, but now because of the danger, no one wants to stay out late.

One of Ammar’s companions is Kurdish, and the other is Sunni. Sometimes, Ammar and the Kurd will tease their Sunni friend about how the Sunnis are the losers in the new Iraq. When there is a bombing in Baghdad, the friends speak about the people who died, but they talk around the edges. “To this moment, when I hear an American was shot or killed in a bombing, I feel very sad. I haven’t changed a bit about this. I can say the Americans are not that bad. God gave us this gift. People should not forget the situation under Saddam. Then, they could not speak out about anything. There was no freedom. They should remember how the Baath were, how they humiliated people,” Ammar says.

“Sometimes, I feel my Sunni friends are happy when Americans are killed, and they don’t care a bit about the civilians who died in a bombing, that a mother and father died. They are happy about these things. They don’t really look at what’s going on. They admire how brave the resistance is. I discuss this with my friends, but then we reach a point, and we don’t go any further.”

It’s a late Thursday afternoon, and Ammar doesn’t know where to go. He could watch fashion models on TV or an action movie. He could see his friends in a café. He’s waiting for something to change, but he doesn’t know what.

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