By Patrick Markey
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Filling the night air with roaring engines and screeching tires, youths in bandannas tear down a highway in souped-up motorcyles, pulling wheelies and dodging cars in a cat-and-mouse with police.
Drag-racing in California, you say? No, this is Baghdad, where youthful rebellion and American biker style clash with conservative mores in Iraq, a country where just a few years ago militias imposed their own radical Islamic views at gunpoint.
Giving themselves names like "Wheelies to the Death", groups of Iraqi bikers gather on Fridays in Jedriya district to taste the thrill of speed, test authorities and forget the worries of living in a city still struggling with bombings and blackouts.
This is no Harley Davidson club cruising the banks of the Tigris. On one Friday, teens sped past standing on the seats of battered mopeds; others roared along on Hondas cobbled from second-hand parts. Those with the cash came on imported bikes.
"I live for the speed to be honest," said Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, a government worker leaning on the red Suzuki he calls "Shark". "If we think about power cuts, jobs, violence, who's been killed or kidnapped, what can we do? Life goes on."
The Iraqi capital is much safer than the darker days of sectarian slaughter when suicide bombers claimed hundreds of victims a day, and Shi'ite Muslim religious militias and Sunni Islamist insurgents tried to spread radical versions of Islam.
Bombs still haunt Baghdad, power shortages are part of daily life and sectarian tensions run close to the surface. But, nine months after the last U.S. troops left, Baghdad is demonstrating signs of a city returning to some form of sanity.
Years of American military presence left many Iraqis with dark memories of U.S. influence, even after the ouster of Saddam Hussein. But Western-style music and dress often rival popular Lebanese pop culture, especially since the retreat of militias.
Like many frustrated Iraqi young, for the Jedriya bikers their weekend sport is a way out of the daily grind brought on by the lack of jobs, basic services and improvements they were promised from their country's growing oil wealth.
"It's like you're in a different world when we come here," Ahmed Faruq, a mechanic riding a yellow Honda with "Monster" sprayed in purple on the side. "What have we gotten since the war? We're young and we've seen nothing so far, nothing good."
Still, in a country where youth life is often an uneasy navigation between conservatism and more open Western styles, the sight of rebellious bikers hot-rodding along a major highway is a strange attraction, drawing crowds of curious onlookers.
"I worry about them, they're so young and it's not safe," said Hussein Amad, a taxi driver sitting on the rear of his yellow cab watching the bikers. "But some of them are like real heroes with what they can do."
RENEGADES AGAINST CREEPING CONSERVATISM
Iraq is usually a less conservative Muslim society than many neighbors like Saudi Arabia and Iran, thanks to the religious, ethnic and sectarian mix of Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurds.
In Baghdad, women often go without the hijab - or traditional headdress, especially in private clubs or areas of the city considered less conformist. Western-style hair salons and even gyms for women are even starting to appear.
But after the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam, militias often forced hardline Islam on neighborhoods they controlled and Islamist political parties came to the fore, bringing with them stricter interpretations of the religion.
Artists, filmmakers and musicians say they feel stifled by conservatism. Bars and stores selling alcohol and nightclubs in Baghdad are occasional raided and shuttered by the armed forces, or sometimes even targeted by insurgent bombers.
In a sign of stubborn militia influence earlier this year, at least 14 Iraqi youths were bludgeoned to death in what appeared to be a campaign by Shi'ite militants against youth wearing Western "Emo" punk clothing and hair styles.
Militia gangs in Shi'ite neighborhoods circulated warnings for those youth to change the way they dress.
But on the Jedriya highway, bikers show no such worries, regarding their sport as a way of expressing themselves.
Dressed in jeans, bandannas and some in plastic body armor used by professional racers, they stood smoking, admiring their bikes and watching each other weave between the cars, showing off skills learned from satellite television sports shows.
One youth sat with a long-haired female companion on his bike, a rare sight in a country where public interaction between unmarried men and women is traditionally more restricted.
Two other young women, one wearing a tattoo with the Arabic letters "Love Forever" on her shoulder, smoked and giggled with another group of young bikers along the banks of the Tigris near the highway.
"I want to be stronger like a man," said Inas Mohammed Ali, 22, wearing a cloth cap pulled over her eyes. "The boys are teaching me to ride the bikes now. Just to get away from all this stress."
Even the traffic police were no object on one recent night. The flash of blue lights sent bikers roaring off temporarily, only to gather again elsewhere. Spectators enjoying the show jeered at traffic cops trying to keep them away.
The next night, a heavily armed police special forces team arrived to sweep up young men caught drinking alcohol along the highway's grassy verge. Bikers scattered for the night.
"Neighbors complain to us and we have orders to arrest those who are drinking," said an Interior Ministry officer at the scene who refused to give his name. "These bikers are into kidnapping and stealing. Not all of them, but most."
But police crackdowns will not stop mechanic Salwan Satar.
"People are proud of us when we do this kind of strange thing in Iraq. It's something different," said Satar, sitting on his custom green and red spray-painted Suzuki Bandit. "We could die in a roadside bomb, but here we make people happy."
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)