Popular comedy brings light touch to Iraq's woes

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BAGHDAD, Sep 29 (Reuters) They call him ''The Chief''. A foul-mouthed, overweight, tyrannical playboy who abuses his aides, he is generating laughs in an Iraqi television show offering a critical but humorous look at the country's woes.

Dressed in a general's uniform and sporting a Hitler-style moustache, he is often surrounded by loyal confidants who do their utmost to please and praise the dictator.

Called ''The Country has Been Sold'', the show is airing daily through the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and is closely watched by many Iraqis inside and outside the country.

The central character portrays the general idea of a dictator rather than any of Iraq's recent or current political leaders, but the programme's jokes are based mostly on current affairs.

In one popular sketch called ''Fantasy, Reality'' a scene plays out a situation twice -- once showing what would happen in an ideal world, and then again, portraying ''reality''.

One fantasy scene sees ''The Chief'' laughing and joking with his ministers before ordering them to use public transport to save fuel for the people. In the next reality scene, he ridicules the ministers' suggestions before kicking them out.

In another scene ''The Chief'' and his ministers write the constitution, stating that the president's term shall be 20 years. He is abruptly interrupted by the prime minister who says: ''Twenty years is as quick as the blink of an eye ...

better make it 75 years''.

CRITICISM The show airs on the Sharqiya channel, which broadcasts from Dubai, and was filmed in neighbouring Syria.

Some find the comedy too politicised, but others enjoy the satire aimed at a government they say is plagued by corruption and struggling to provide basic services.

''They exaggerate the problems we have. But it's still a lot of fun to watch, children in my area are running around imitating the chief,'' said Ghassan Ali, a 24-year-old builder from the Shi'ite city of Hilla.

Shi'ite politician Sheikh Hameed Mualla said he stopped watching Sharqiya after two episodes.

''I felt it was heavily politicised. Everyone likes satirical shows that criticise the government in a tasteful way but this was not entertainment, it was a cheap shot,'' he told Reuters.

Sharqiya's director of programming, Dubai-based Alaa al-Dahan, denied the programme meant to insult anyone.

''We're not used to a proper democracy. Politicians openly encourage it but when you implement its teachings they become upset,'' he said. ''All we can do is use humour and comedy to relieve the people of their troubles.'' Other shows on Sharqiya take a satirical look at the warfare between Iraq's Sunni and Shi'ite Arab communities.

Comedian Meys Gumar runs a talk show named ''Obrah'', loosely based on Oprah Winfrey's US show, where she chats to fictitious guests including a ''minister of sectarianism'' who orders Shi'ites and Sunnis in the audience to sit separately.

Another guest is a Saudi-accented suicide bomber who teaches her how to detonate a vest.

Iraq shut down the channel's Baghdad office on the first day of this year, accusing Sharqiya of stirring up sectarian tension and reporting false news.

Media tycoon Saad al-Bazzaz, who owns the station, was reportedly close to Saddam Hussein's eldest son Uday but denies his station takes a heavily pro-Sunni Arab slant.

Rasim al-Jumaili, the actor who plays ''The Chief'', told Sharqiya television recently he was initially reluctant to play a political part.

''I was scared to play a political role, but when I read the script I saw it was fun, comical and critical,'' he said.

''When we have this type of political humour, we are not disrespecting anyone. We are criticising positive and negative issues that Iraqis are suffering from,'' Jumaili said.

''How can I remain quiet when there is no electricity for 20 hours a day? ... All we can say is 'this is wrong, correct it'.'' Reuters MP VP0656

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