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FishForLunch
05-27-2005, 12:27 PM
http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/photo.cms?msid=1124130

BAGHDAD: When he belches around Baghdad's old quarter on his spotless Harley Davidson, Kadhem Sharif, a powerlifting champion sporting wrap-around sunglasses, makes for an unlikely sight.

And the 53-year-old is fully aware that his passion for one of the most recognisable symbols of the American way of life is not to everybody's liking in post-war Iraq.

But his garage is a carbon copy of any Harley aficionado's den in the United States, complete with posters of naked "babes on bikes".

And his collection of 40-plus motorbikes provides a condensed history of 100 years of national turmoil. "This Norton was built in 1914 and became part of the escort of King Faisal, Iraq's first monarch," says Kadhem, 53, as he proudly gives a tour of his modest garage.

About half of his motorbikes are Harleys. "I was 12 when I sneaked out on my father's Harley for the first time. I bought my first one eight years later, a 1966 Fatboy," Kadhem recalls.

When Saddam Hussein's feared elder son Uday helped himself to one of his favourite Harleys, "it was almost like losing a child". "Uday came back after the 1996 assassination attempt against him and ordered me to convert the bike into a three-wheeler because he was handicapped.

I started hiding my best Harleys because I was afraid he would take more." When Saddam's army invaded Kuwait in 1990, it returned to Iraq with the Kuwaiti police's entire fleet of 'King of the Highway' Harleys.

"I bought dozens of them. Throughout the nineties, I made a good business. I would take them apart, smuggle them up north to Kurdistan and reassemble them. I would sell them mainly to Dutch expatriates living in Sulaimaniyah," he says.

"It was a bit dangerous though. I was arrested in 1995 and spent four months in prison." Kadhem readily admits that several of his bikes were stolen in neighbouring countries and smuggled into Iraq.

But he also discovered some of his collection's most precious pieces by combing the countryside for vintage motorcycles rusting away in the field of an unwitting farmer.

One is a 1947 British-made BSA he spent months repairing. The fin-like plate on the front fender reads "Anbar province", an area of western Iraq notorious for insurgent violence since the 2003 US-led invasion.

"I found it in a tiny village between Fallujah and Ramadi. But I've had to stop going to this part of the country," he explains.

Despite the intimidating size of his chest and forearms, the former Iraqi bench press champion, known to his friends as 'Mr Muscle', now risks an icy reception in insurgent strongholds as his face has become one of the symbols of the overthrow of Saddam's regime.

On April 9, 2003, Kadhem was one of the first to rush to Baghdad's Fardus Square and pictures of the burly Shiite hacking away at the marble plinth of Saddam's giant statue were beamed live around the world in one of the most enduring images of the regime's ouster.

"People in the neighbourhood know me. I get on with everybody. US soldiers used to block the road so they could spend some time in my garage," Kadhem says.

"They sometimes bring me copies of motorcycling magazines and even bought me leather boots. I'm still in touch with one of them who is saving up all his money to buy my Harley chopper."