Bikers of Baghdad: Sunnis, Shias, Skulls, ‘Harleys,’ and Iraqi Flags

In the Iraq Bikers club, a not-so-wild bunch of men, including Christians and Hezbollah fighters, see themselves as “family.” Not a bad model for the rest of the nation.

BAGHDAD — Most members of the “The Iraq Bikers,” as the Baghdad motorcycle club is called, ride Hondas but prefer to call them Harleys. Some have just returned from fighting against the Islamic State, formerly ISIS, in Iraq’s north where the group is entrenched. The war is tightening around all of them, those just back from it and others waiting to join the battle. At home in Baghdad they take the time they have to get together and ride.

The Iraq Bikers usually meet once a week to socialize and ride around the city, but this past Friday was special. For one thing, it was Ramadan and a number of the bikers brought their children along so they could all break the fast together in a big outing at a local restaurant. It was also almost three weeks since one of their members was killed, shot outside of his home in Baghdad. If anyone knew who was responsible for the killing—whether it was ISIS, a Shia militia, Iraq’s security forces, or one of the country’s countless other groups capable of such violence—they weren’t saying. He was a friend and he was killed and would be missed, was all they’d say.

Like most biker groups, this one has a special way to honor a fallen member. But in Baghdad, where violent deaths are common and loss becomes routine, the club’s memorials have been stripped of ceremony. “Our ritual is very simple,” said the group’s leader, “Captain Bilal” al Bayati: “We don’t do any shows [group rides for a public audience] for three weeks and we visit with his family.” The mourning period is almost over; if it ends without anyone else being killed they will have a show next Friday.

Catpain Bilal, also called “Chief” by the other Iraq Bikers, is the club’s 34-year-old founder.

“I started the group two years ago. First it was just me, then two or three people joined,” Bilal said, “then two or three more. Then I went to different parts of Baghdad to find the right people. Not just anybody can join our group.” Qualifying, as an Iraq Biker has nothing to do with family background. “Our members are from every group: Sunni, Shia, Christian, Turcoman, Kurd.” There are no hazing rituals, no violent rites of getting jumped in.

They see themselves as patriots, upholding the vision of Iraqi nationalism that others have abandoned or written off, but in which they still believe.

Law is weak in Iraq and scarcely exists apart from violence. Throughout the country, it’s which way the gun is pointing that determines whether legal codes are threatened or upheld. The Iraq Bikers are far from pacifists, but they have no use for the outlaw aspect of biker culture that’s proudly flaunted by other clubs throughout the world. They like the symbols of that culture, but it’s just a matter of style.

“We are not a gang like bikers in other countries. Our first priority is to show that we are good people,” said Bilal. “We are a family.”

If you’re not approached to join the club you just have to ask. After a couple of months probation to see if you act right, Captain Bilal welcomes you in. Today there are something like 75 members.

There is no matching uniform for the group but you can tell at a glance that they’re bikers: patched up leather vests showing the “Iraq Bikers” emblem, bandanas, wallet chains and, in one case, a long, braided ponytail, give off the international signals of biker culture. They stick out in a Baghdad crowd, but members say that causes them no problems.

“Some people say it’s not traditional,” said Ahmed, who rides a red Honda with skulls and chains affixed to it. “They say, ‘Come on, we are not in Texas!’ But we don’t have any problems,” Ahmed said. He found his bike two months ago abandoned on the street, “I worked on it and brought it back to life.” Now that the red Honda is properly outfitted with skulls and chains, it’s his bike.

Nabir Kadim Jasim, 40, has been riding since he was 15 and was brought up around his father’s and brother’s passion for motorcycles. “I just returned from Mosul two days ago,” Jasim said. He was there, he said, as a soldier with Hezbollah in Iraq. “I’m a sniper. We killed many ISIS there.”

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There is little evidence of Iraq Hezbollah’s role in the fighting in Mosul, but volunteers from Shia militias have been active in the war.

“We fought in Mosul 10 days,” Jasim said, “then they sent us to Bayji to help the army liberate the refinery.” Friday’s ride through Baghdad was only a brief interlude for Jasim. He doesn’t have much time on his bike before returning to the front. He says that soon he and 50 other fighters from Hezbollah in Iraq will join up with the Iraqi army at a training camp in Baghdad, then “We will go to Anbar together to fight ISIS there.”

This could be posturing. Anbar, ISIS’s longest held stronghold in Iraq, is a Sunni-dominated region mired in intense fighting. Hezbollah in Iraq’s involvement there is unclear, but leaders from other Shia militia groups like the Mahdi Army have said that they will not go into the area to avoid being drawn into the chaos there.

Of the Iraq Bikers’ 75 members, 15 are now serving as soldiers or in militias fighting in the war. “The number goes up every day,” said Captain Bilal.

Weekly get-togethers give the group’s members a chance to relax and socialize while they tinker with each other’s bikes, exchange needed parts and plan their next show. But none of the members described the group as an outlet to relieve the pressure of the war or a chance to retreat into a personal escape. Along with all the motorcycle paraphernalia, many members had Iraqi flags waving from the back of their bikes as they rode, and described the group in patriotic terms.

Several weeks ago, members said, the group rode in military uniforms to show their support for the war effort and raise morale in Baghdad in the face of the threat from ISIS.

“When the chaos started, some Iraqi leaders called begging us to do bike shows to give the people something to be happy about,” Captain Bilal said, “but until now we didn’t get any support from the government,” he added.

There’s a novel quality to an Iraqi biker group that includes a Hezbollah fighter and a proudly non-sectarian leader, but the group embodies the passionate nationalism that many Iraqis feel. Despite the war here the constant threat of religious and ethnic conflict, and the deep fissures that could break the state apart, it’s still easy to find people in Baghdad—sheiks, shopkeepers, and bikers—who are committed to Iraqi nationalism.

It’s hard to be a tough guy in Iraq, the bar is set dangerously high. The Iraqi bikers aren’t even trying. They don’t go blazing through the streets roaring their engines—too many checkpoints to even try—and they don’t look for fights with rival gangs. They have no elaborate handshakes or secret mottoes.

In a country at war, in a city where bombs rip through the streets and military checkpoints are as common as traffic lights, there’s nothing menacing about some men with skull trinkets on their bikes.

“All the countries of the world have bikers. It’s something normal for us,” Captain Bilal said. But he’s hoping for better than normal. “In September we have a show in Spain. We want to be known internationally. Already we have 10,000 likes on Facebook.”

Actually, it’s more like 9,000, but hopes are high. And that’s rare in Baghdad these days.