Banned Books Trade Sparks Anbar Security Fears

Clandestine printing presses in western province of Anbar accused of spreading insurgent propaganda.

Banned Books Trade Sparks Anbar Security Fears

Clandestine printing presses in western province of Anbar accused of spreading insurgent propaganda.

Abdullah al-Dulaimi named his book after an ancient Arabic proverb and pitched its fiery message at the United States and its Iraqi allies.

He said his 200-page polemic, entitled What Is Taken By Force Must Be Retrieved By Force, discussed “the necessity of fighting the Americans and punishing those who co-operate with them, from politicians to civil servants and translators”.

The book was finished a year ago but has yet to make it to market. Established publishers did not touch it, Dulaimi said, because they feared it would land them in trouble with the authorities. “They assume I’m calling for violence and extremism,” he said.

A university-educated mathematician in his mid-forties, he denied encouraging terrorism, insisting he was merely being realistic. “The invaders would never think of leaving this country unless there is resistance … The political process is a complete failure,” he said.

Dulaimi said he was turned away by more than 32 publishers, even though he had offered to pay from his own pocket for the print run.

The publishers may also have been put off by Dulaimi’s failure to secure a permit from the culture ministry – a legal prerequisite for all new books in Iraq, indicating that they have been officially declared free of content that is immoral, seditious or liable to incite violence and sectarian hatred.

Yet Dulaimi’s dream of seeing his work in print is about to come true. A press in his native Anbar province has agreed to produce his book clandestinely.

“I have found a lifeboat,” he said. Praising the “cheap price, excellent design and quality paper” offered by the press, he said copies of his book would soon be available in shops throughout Anbar.

He also has an eye on the foreign market, namely nearby countries such as Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. “I am sure my book will be praised there,” he said.


Police estimate there are at least 13 printing presses publishing illegal materials in the western Iraqi province of Anbar, a former stronghold of Sunni Arab insurgents influenced by al-Qaeda. Officials say the illicit books often promote the dangerous ideology of militant groups trying to regroup in the region.

Recent months have seen rising unrest in Anbar. Security officials have warned that the Awakening, a tribal militia funded by the US military and the Iraqi government, is facing a fresh challenge from the insurgents it was fostered to fight.

“Illegal books are not a form of free expression,” said Fawzi al-Malhami, the official in charge of overseeing publications at a branch of the culture ministry in Fallujah, a major Anbar town and former insurgent stronghold.

“Some of the books are as dangerous as TNT,” he said, referring to a chemical compound commonly used in explosives.

Mohammed al-Obaidy, an Anbar police sergeant, compared the printers operating illegally to criminals involved in kidnapping or narcotics. He said his team was trying to track down printers and authors, most of whom used pseudonyms, in the hope that they would lead to insurgent networks.

“Armed groups pay for the books because of the importance of media in Sunni areas,” he said.

According to Obaidy, a recent raid on an insurgent’s house near Fallujah had led to the discovery of more than 100 illicit books on “extremism and violence”, stored alongside ammunition.

“The insurgent confessed to distributing the books among those whom he believed shared his ideas,” Obaidy said.

Another Anbar police official, Lieutenant Jawad Saadi, said illicit presses had spread throughout the province in the days when it was a stronghold for militants. While it was no longer clear who funded the trade, he believed most of the books were paid for individually by authors, or through donations.


In shops across the province, books produced outside the law can be identified by their sensational names and by the absence of any address for the printing house. Typical titles include: Iraq’s Invasion Paves the Way for the Destruction of Jerusalem; The Proportion of Jews in the American Army; and Mosques Against the Occupation.

Such texts stand in sharp contrast to books that have been printed legitimately, which typically address social or religious themes. Popular titles in this category include: How to Raise the Iraqi Child in a Changed Environment; 1000 Questions for the Iraqi Family; and Civilised Islam.

The owner of an old bookstore in a rundown Fallujah district said he chose his stock according to demand.

“We buy books that have provocative, attractive titles,” said the owner, who asked not to be identified. “They are sold by middlemen who tour Anbar in small trucks. We stock what we think works for the market, regardless of the author or publisher.”

According to Nabeel Khalid, owner of a bookstore in Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, the illegal books typically attract men between the ages of 18 and 40.

“They are usually extremists who have lost a family member or friend and are looking for something that matches their mood,” he said.

Khalid maintained that the most popular illicit books dealt with themes such as religion, armed struggle, the torture of women prisoners and abuses by the American military.

Among the books produced legitimately, he said the bestsellers were academic textbooks and travel guides offering tips on emigration.

Luay Salim, a 19-year-old man in Ramadi, said he had recently bought an illicit book documenting the memories of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, an Iraqi jail at the centre of an infamous abuse scandal involving American guards several years ago.

“I also bought a book that shows the American blueprint for Iraq’s future,” he said. “Such books teach me things that the government and the Americans do not want us to know.”

Amir Abd, a 28-year-old, said he freely bought legitimate and illicit books. He was careful to distinguish between them, he said, because as a business student he could be penalised for citing texts printed without official sanction.


The illicit books are usually shoddily printed on Chinese or Iranian paper, though some presses are able to produce better quality work.

Books sold with official approval are also often of poor quality. However, they typically cost more than the illegal books because of the need to recoup taxes and distribution costs.

A printer will typically charge five million Iraqi dinars (4,000 US dollars) for producing 1,000 copies of a book that does not have official approval. Such books tend to be sold at cost price – roughly 5,000 dinars per copy. The producers do not need to pay taxes, while distribution takes place through informal networks, keeping costs down.

Mainstream religious leaders have criticised printers operating outside the law.

Sheikh Abdulrahman Ali, a prominent cleric in Fallujah, likened those who printed books by anonymous authors to “lumbermen who chopped trees by night”.

“They do not know the difference between good and bad wood, or in this case, good and bad books,” he said.

The owner of a press producing illicit literature in Anbar, speaking on condition of anonymity, said his livelihood depended on his German-built printing machine.

He said he had bought the machine more than four years ago with a view to starting a legitimate publishing business. However, competition from other printers and the promise of higher profits had driven his operation underground.

The printer said he now made good money from authors whose books had been refused by other publishers and from customers who came to him in a hurry, seeking a quick turnaround and low prices.

Nervous of being detected by the police, he had taken several precautions. He only took orders for controversial books from customers who had been introduced by trusted middlemen. Visitors to his workshop were received via a discreet back door, rather than from the main entrance.

The printer distanced himself from the inflammatory content of some of the books, saying “he had no power over the people who bought or read them”.

Pointing to a recent product of his press, a book urging Iraqis to pay a religious tax to insurgents, he said, “This could have been printed unofficially anywhere inside Iraq or abroad.

“Anyone who writes such a book knows beforehand that he cannot get official approval for printing it.”


Malhami, the official in charge of publications at the ministry of culture in Fallujah, said a body of government experts had been tasked with vetting the content of new books.

“Books that are not approved should not be published unless offending passages have been removed,” he said.

He admitted, however, that the authorities were struggling to keep tabs on the illegal book industry, as the security forces were preoccupied with battling insurgents. Malhami urged the police to work more closely with the culture ministry in the crackdown on the trade.

Insurgent propaganda may be the most poisonous product of the illicit presses, according to the authorities, but it is not the only threat.

Among the guides to bomb-making and the exhortations to armed struggle lining Anbar’s bookshelves are also texts considered too salacious for public consumption.

“Some of the books invite youth to be more relaxed regarding sex, and others contain inappropriate poetry or stories,” said Malhami, criticising printers for “advocating social and ethical decay”.

Several publications also malign prominent tribes and leaders, seemingly to settle local scores. A recent book described a tribe involved in the Awakening as the “shoe used by the Americans to pass through the Iraqi swamp”.

The diverse interests driving the market for illicit books could make it very hard to eradicate. Amjad Saadi, a 33-year-old student from Ramadi, said he sought them out because he believed information should be freely available in a free society. He argued that curbs on the trade were pointless.

“Even if the presses were shut down, we still have the internet,” he said. “We can get anything we want online.”

Uthman al-Mukhtar is an IWPR-trained journalist in Fallujah.
Support our journalists