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With a lull in violence, Iraqis turn to weightier matters

Gyms such as International Dragon in Baghdad's Karada section cater to Iraqis' growing demand for fitness. Gyms such as International Dragon in Baghdad's Karada section cater to Iraqis' growing demand for fitness. (Saad Khalaf/Los Angeles Times)
By Monte Morin
Los Angeles Times / March 1, 2009
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BAGHDAD - As Iraq awakens from a years-long nightmare of sectarian violence, many Baghdad residents are thrilled by signs of newfound stability: manicured parks, fully stocked markets, and the absence of militias.

Not so thrilling: their own reflections in the mirror.

After retreating into their homes to escape violence and living off a steady diet of satellite television, cigarettes, and hearty, high-calorie food, many have emerged out of shape. Some are heading to the gym.

"Before, we worried only about being killed by a militia or bombing," said one man at a Baghdad gym. "Now, you will not die by an [improvised explosive device]; you will die of heart attack."

The Iraqi government hopes to promote fitness by subsidizing sports centers, according to officials at the Ministry of Health, which does not keep statistics on gym use by Iraqis.

The renewed interest in fitness also has spawned a new class of entrepreneur - gym owners who offer personal trainers and guarantees that customers will lose weight and shape up for anywhere between $20 and $150 a month.

At a dozen or so packed fitness centers, owners are importing sophisticated cardio and weight machines from the United States, along with truckloads of fat burners, weightlifting supplements, and detoxifying teas.

"People just want to be in better shape," said Fahed Abed, a Baghdad University student browsing the shelves of a supplement shop, one of several that have sprung up in the past year.

Even under Saddam Hussein, Iraq had supported a small culture of weightlifters and bodybuilders, many of whom worked in security details. Often they grunted out sets in dingy rooms that offered little more than a weight bench and a mixed collection of free weights.

Gym owner Sabah Talib immediately changed the name of his Elegant Bodies gym in the Karada district of Baghdad to Arnold Classic Gym, in honor of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a former champion bodybuilder. Talib said he had long wanted to make the change, but officials under Hussein prohibited him from naming the gym after a foreigner.

Talib also filled his gym with photos of the former Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia, began a correspondence with Schwarzenegger, and held a bodybuilding contest on the street in front of his business.

That gym renaissance, however, was short-lived.

Weightlifters were quickly targeted by militias and insurgents as suspected collaborators with US forces.

"The situation was good for one year," said Haider Adel, 25, a onetime bodybuilder and the owner of the Academy Center for Sport Nutrition, a supplement shop.

"Then the terrorists started killing bodybuilders," Adel said. "We lost a lot of them that way, including my coach. Everybody was afraid to go to the gym. Most bodybuilders went to Syria."

At the International Dragon in Karada, customers must climb a damp, dark stairwell before they enter the packed fitness center. Its walls are painted yellow, and enormous mirrors reflect a collection of new Hammer Strength fitness machines, their seat cushions still wrapped in blue shipping plastic.

Owner Ali Abbas, 29, has decorated the gym with large photos of himself posing at competitions in Las Vegas and standing beside bulging US weightlifting champions.

Abbas said his customers include a mix of military and police personnel, as well as a collection of professionals and students. He specializes in whipping overweight Iraqis into shape.

"They tell me how much they want to weigh and when, and I will get them there, guaranteed," said Abbas, who earned the money to open his gym by working as a UN bodyguard.

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