Iraqis join fast food fan club

Baghdad is experiencing a burger boom as a wave of new American-style restaurants spread across the Iraqi capital.

Customers hungry for alternatives to traditional offerings like lamb kebabs and fire-roasted carp are flocking to them.

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 ate 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 appetisers along with all-American entrees like three-way chilli, Philly cheesesteaks and a nearly half-pound "Big Mouth Chizzila" burger.

Baghdad's Green Zone and nearby US military bases once sported outposts of big American chains, including Pizza Hut, Burger King and Subway, but they shut down as American troops left last year. Because they were hidden behind checkpoint-controlled fortifications, most ordinary Iraqis never had a chance to get close to them, anyway.

Dining out in Iraq is not without risk. Ice cream parlours, restaurants and cafes were among the targets of a brutal string of attacks that tore through Iraq on August 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.

Health experts are predictably not thrilled about the new arrivals. "The opening of these American-style restaurants ... will make Iraqis, especially children, fatter," said hospital doctor Sarmad Hamid.