Iraqi pop stars, tainted by association with Saddam Hussein's rule, are slowly making a comeback, but, as in politics, it's the exiles who are hogging the limelight.

Iraqi pop stars, tainted by association with Saddam Hussein's rule, are slowly making a comeback, but, as in politics, it's the exiles who are hogging the limelight.

Iraq once had dozens of young pop singers, but during the 1990s they had to sing the praises of the dictator, forcing many to flee abroad and others to give up altogether.

Prominent singer Dawood Qaissi was so close to the ruling elite that he was gunned down in May, prompting many crooners to go into hiding while Washington set up a civilian administration and a governing council dominated by dissidents from abroad.

"They are frightened since most of them were forced to sing for the previous government," said a video production chief who asked not to be identified. "Ordinary people had been repressed so they didn't want any reminder [of the past]. But they were naive since we were all in one way or another part of the system," he said.

As he sits talking in his bare Baghdad office, which lacks even a telephone line, Nizar al-Khaled, one of the young stars of the previous era, walks in.

Singing under Saddam caused nothing but problems, Khaled said, usually because of his vindictive son Uday who ran the al-Shebab youth and entertainment television channel.

"Another singer, Haitham Yousef, and I were really popular with the girls, so Uday stopped us appearing on television. Then last year they produced a list of singers who had not sung for Saddam yet [on television], so I had to do it -- twice," he said.

Yousef fled the country after Uday had a group of girls beat him up at a concert, Khaled said. Former workers at Shebab recall other incidents, one involving Uday urinating on a singer.

But for those who suffered the system's madness things have hardly improved.

Khaled said singers avoid public performances because of the security situation, face threats from religious extremists and suffer from an open season on copyright theft.

"I wouldn't put out an album now because it wouldn't be worth the effort," he says, pulling out a recent tape he came across from Saudi Arabia featuring four of his songs. "People are thirsty for Iraqi songs, Iraqi films, Iraqi dramas; just to hear something in the Iraqi dialect."

In another part of town, Jawdat Mutashar, an owner of Studio Hikmat, is proclaiming the rebirth of Iraqi pop.

"Production now is stronger and we've got loads of orders. It's a revival," he says in the high-tech studio's office. "We even have Syrian and Jordanian singers coming here to record, partly because it's cheaper. When the situation in Baghdad stabilizes things will really take off."

Downstairs, Iraqi star Salah al-Bahr is about to enter the studio to record another song for his new album.

The 33-year-old has a deal with a Saudi recording company, which will also shoot video clips for his songs in Dubai. In the lucrative world of Arab pop, that means Bahr has made it.

"I don't do politics because people are sick of it, but I do sing about the new Iraq and freedom," says Bahr, who spent most of his time in France before Saddam's government fell.

Like other exile singers, Bahr would return each year to sing for Saddam. "We had no choice so I think we can be forgiven. Most people understand this," he said.

The industry has a lot of catching up to do, says poet and lyricist Adel Muhsin, who writes for most of the Iraqi singers returning to the music business.

Stars from other Arab countries now dominate Iraqi popular culture. The current biggest sellers, according to music shops, are Egyptians Amr Diab and Sherine, and Syria's Asala Nasry.

"I hope we can catch up with the rest of the Arabs," Muhsin said. "But the public will most appreciate the singers who stayed in the country and suffered with them."

The most famous of the exile singers is Kazem al-Saher, who from a base in Cairo became one of the biggest pop stars in the Arab world singing about Iraq's suffering during the 1990s.

The new Iraq has proved to be a marketable commodity abroad. Saher featured on English diva Sarah Brightman's album "Harem" and another exiled singer, Ilham al-Madfai, had an international release on major music label EMI, titled "Baghdad."

Despite the travails, Khaled says he's glad he suffered life under the former administration along with ordinary Iraqis.

"I'm happy I stayed here with my family and that I was the first singer to appear on Iraqi television after the regime fell," he said.

"Kazem was never famous here or elsewhere until he went abroad. He sang 'I remember one night,' but what does he remember? Maybe he should have come here more often."

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