BAGHDAD — After more than eight years in Iraq, the departing American military's legacy includes a fledgling democracy, bitter memories of war, and for the nation's youth, rap music, tattoos and slang.
In other words, as the Dec. 31 deadline for completing their withdrawal approaches, U.S. troops are leaving behind the good, the bad and what "Lil Czar" Mohammed calls the "punky."
Sporting baggy soldiers' camouflage pants, high-top sneakers and a back-turned "N.Y." baseball cap, the chubby 22-year-old was showing off his break-dancing moves on a sunny afternoon in a Baghdad park. A $ sign was shaved into his closely cropped hair.
"While others might stop being rappers after the Americans leave, I will go on (rapping) till I reach N.Y.," said Mohammed, who teaches part-time at a primary school.
His forearm bore a tattoo of dice above the words "GANG STAR." That was the tattooist's mistake, he said; it was supposed to say "gangsta."
Eight million Iraqis — a quarter of the population — have been born since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, and nearly half the country is under 19, according to Brett McGurk, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and, until recently, senior adviser to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
So after years of watching U.S. soldiers on patrol, it's inevitable that hip-hop styles, tough-guy mannerisms and slangy English patter would catch on with young Iraqis.
Calling themselves "punky," or "hustlers," many are donning hoodie sweatshirts, listening to 50 Cent or Eminem and watching Twilight vampire movies. They eat hamburgers and pizza and do death-defying Rollerblade runs through speeding traffic. Teens spike their hair or shave it Marine-style. The "Iraq Rap" page on Facebook has 1,480 fans.
To many of their fellow Iraqis, the habits appear weird, if not downright offensive. But to the youths, it is a vital part of their pursuit of the American dream as they imagine it to be.
"Lil Czar" Mohammed, a Shiite Muslim, says he was introduced to American culture by a Christian friend, Laith, who subsequently had to flee the anti-Christian violence that broke out in Baghdad. "I had nothing to help my friend, he left," he said. "But when I get the money and become a rich boss, I will tell my friend Laith to come back."
Meanwhile, he said, he is trying to record a rap song in Arabic and English. "It is about our situation. About no jobs for us."
"I love the American soldiers," said Mohammed Adnan, 15, who pastes imitation tattoos on his arm. Adnan lives in the Sadr City, the Baghdad base of followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has threatened violence against U.S. troops if they stay beyond 2011.
But, surprisingly, Adnan says the U.S. gangsta look is accepted in his neighborhood.
"All young men in Sadr City wear the same clothes when we hang around," he said. "Nobody minds. And we're invited to weddings or celebrations where we perform break-dancing."
It all adds up to a taste of the wide world for a society which lived for decades under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship that deprived them of satellite TV, cell phones and the Internet, and then through invasion, terrorism and sectarian killing.
Not all Iraqis welcome the culture the Americans brought. Fawzia A. al-Attia, a sociologist at Baghdad University, says one result is that young Iraqis now reject school uniforms, engage in forbidden love affairs and otherwise rebel against their elders.
"There was no strategy to contain this sudden openness," she said. "Teenagers, especially in poor areas where parents are of humble origin and humble education, started to adopt the negative aspects of the American society because they think that by imitating the Americans, they obtain a higher status in society.
"These young Iraqi people need to be instructed," she said. "They need to know about the positive aspects of the American society to imitate."
Like many Iraqis, high school student Maytham Karim wants to learn English. But the English he hears most often from his peers — and mostly those who listen to American music — is laden with profanity.
"The F- and the 'mother' words are used a lot, which is a very negative thing," Karim said.
As U.S. forces began closing their bases, Iraqis rummaged through their garbage for discarded uniforms, caps and boots to sell to youngsters who pay top dollar to dress like soldiers. Baghdad's tattoo business is also booming. Hassan Hakim's tattoo parlor in affluent Karradah neighborhood is covered with glossy pictures of half-naked men and women showing off their ink, regardless of Islam's strictures on baring the skin.
The storefront caused a stir when it opened last summer, but complaints soon died down and the business is thriving.
"Iraqi youth are eager in a very unusual way to get tattoo on their bodies, probably because of the American presence here," said Hakim, 32, who is attending graduate school at Baghdad's Fine Arts Academy. "Four years ago, people were concealing their tattoos when in public, but now they use their designs to show off. It is the vogue now."
Most of Hakim's customers are Iraqi security guards imitating their American counterparts. They demand tattoos of coffins, skulls, snakes, dragons, bar codes, Gothic letters and crosses. Female customers prefer flowers and butterflies on their shoulders. Also, many young women now dare to wear tight tops and hip-hugging jeans with their hijabs, or head coverings. Some also sport miniature dogs.
Showbiz and military chic aside, young Iraqis agree that the American troops opened their minds to the outside world. The wait for a place in an English classes, for example, can last months.
"I found that all Iraqis want to learn English," said Nawras Mohammed, and using the Internet or watching satellite TV is fine. But users need to be selective, the 24-year-old college graduate said.
"The positive and the negative aspects of the American presence," she said, "depend on us."