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Iraqis Go Nuts Over Cell Phones, Ringtones, Text Messaging

Beep, beep, beep.

Then the text comes: "President Bush calls for a timetable for the withdrawal of the Iraqi people from Iraq."

It's not a news update. It's Omar Abdul Kareem's relentlessly beeping cell phone — and one of the 20 or so humorous text messages he gets every day from his friends.

In a city bereft of entertainment, text messaging and swapping ringtones are all the rage for young Iraqis trying to lighten their lives. Most restaurants, cafes and movies have closed due to the country's security situation.

The content of the text messages and ringtones speak volumes about the state of affairs here: jokes and songs about suicide bombings, sectarianism, power outages, gas prices, Saddam Hussein and George Bush.

Cell phone shops, the only crowded stores these days, sell special CDs with ringtones at about $2 apiece. Collections of short jokes especially written for texters are best-sellers.

Iraqis fiddling with their cell phones on the streets look like New Yorkers hooked on iPods.

"It's not like there's much to do around here," Abdul Kareem said. "It's perhaps the only venue to express ourselves."

The suave 22-year-old security guard carries a cutting-edge Nokia 3250 with a camera and twisting base. He used to buy $60 worth of prepaid phone cards a month to text with his girlfriend — until they broke up.

After sending her a lot of "I miss you" texts, he's moved on. Now he sends his aunt dozens of jokes, most of them at the expense of ethnic Kurds.

The daily reality of violence and explosions has influenced every aspect of Iraqi life — including love notes.

"I send you the tanks of my love, bullets of my admiration and a rocket of my yearning," one popular message reads.

A popular ringtone features the music from Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise."

But the local version includes a voice similar to Saddam's rapping in English: "I'm Saddam, I don't have a bomb/Bush wants to kick me/I don't know why/smoking weed and getting high/I know the devil's by my side."

The song concludes with: "My days are over and I'm gonna die/all I need is chili fries" as a crowd yells "Goodbye forever, may God curse you."

Competing with Saddam for the most popular song in Iraq today is Iraqi pop star Hossam al-Rassam — "Ma, I've been stung by a scorpion."

Its sensual lyrics challenge widespread conservatism in Iraq by talking about a girl's lips and perfume "that make you live longer."

Rasha Tareq, 23, has al-Rassam's ringtone, as well as dozens of others by Lebanese singers. The most expensive ringtones include songs by Egyptian pop star Amr Diab.

"Ah, well, Dad pays for all that," she said.

Dad also paid for her Nokia 7660 as well as the eight other models she has bought since cell phones first hit the market after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Rasha says her only source of entertainment used to be trips to Baghdad's Mutanabi Street on Fridays to buy downloads and joke books for her cell phone. But since a Friday morning curfew was imposed a few months ago, she has had to limit herself to nearby stores.

"Though not as good as the stuff on Mutanabi Street, there's at least three stores in every block," she said. "Texting my girlfriends is my only hobby."

But cell phones in Iraq aren't just about being cool.

Some Iraqis use their cell phones to make political statements, with ringtones like "Mawtini," or "My Land," — Iraq's pre-Saddam national anthem. Others favor jingles believed to be sung by members of the Shiite Mahdi Army militia.

Because of the popularity of text messages, political parties used them as a way to campaign during parliamentary elections last year.

Currently, an Iraqi non-governmental organization texts Iraqis, urging them to "confront violence with peace."

The tech-savvy insurgents have also gotten in on the act, making threats through text messages sent from Web sites, which makes it hard to track down the source.

Abdul Kareem, the security guard, says he texts his mother around the clock — "especially if I'm out late, you know, with all the bombs going off everywhere."