BAGHDAD — Baghdad's embattled residents can finally get their milkshakes, chili-cheese dogs and buckets of crispy fried chicken. Original recipe or extra spicy, of course.
A wave of new American-style restaurants is spreading across the Iraqi capital, enticing customers hungry for alternatives to traditional offerings like lamb kebabs and fire-roasted carp.
The fad is a sign that Iraqis, saddled with violence for years and still experiencing almost daily bombings and shootings, are prepared to move on and embrace ordinary pleasures - like stuffing their faces with pizza.
Iraqi entrepreneurs and investors from nearby countries, not big multinational chains, are driving the food craze. They see Iraq as an untapped market of increasingly adventurous eaters where competition is low and the potential returns are high.
"We're fed up with traditional food," said government employee Osama al-Ani as he munched on pizza at one of the packed new restaurants last week. "We want to try something different."
Among the latest additions is a sit-down restaurant called Chili House. Its glossy menu touts Caesar salads and hot wing appetizers along with all-American entrees like three-way chili, Philly cheesesteaks and a nearly half-pound "Big Mouth Chizzila" burger.
"Everybody likes to eat and dress up. This is something that brings people together," he explained. "People tell us: `We feel like we're out of Baghdad. And that makes us feel satisfied.'"
Dining out in Iraq is not without risk. Ice cream parlors, restaurants and cafes were among the targets of a brutal string of attacks that tore through Iraq on Aug. 16, leaving more than 90 people dead.
Iraqis say the chance to relax in clean surroundings over a meal out is worth the gamble. For them, the restaurants are a symbol of progress.
"This gives you a feeling the country's on the right track," said Wameed Fawzi, a chemical engineer enjoying Lee's fried chicken strips with his wife Samara.
Ah yes - you know your country's on the right track when you too can take the family out to a restaurant and eat some food that will eventually give you heart disease, diabetes and a stroke.
It will be total progress when Iraqis can go out to these places without worrying about car bombs killing them while they eat their french fries.
Just another example of how the United States is adding value the world over - first we destabilize the country so that mass slaughter continues to be a monthly occurrence then we provide the environment for the local entrepreneurs to run American-style fast food joints while we steal all the oil and natural resources.
What a country!