Amid chaos of war, calm of peace in Kufah

Rising prices at market reflect worsening situation for Iraq yet optimism, too

April 06, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KUFAH, Iraq - Twelve-year-old Salaam Muhammad was hawking fruit yesterday with the ease of a veteran salesman, and his broad smile didn't falter despite the flies and the heat.

A kilogram would cost 1,000 Iraqi dinars, 33 cents, but what he didn't say was that the price was sharply higher than it was even a day ago. On Friday, a kilogram was 600 dinars.

It fell to a relative named Laith to explain the rise. "Because of war," he said, "everything goes up."

Salaam's wooden fruit stand was in the sprawling marketplace near the Euphrates River. It is where farmers sell heaps of tomatoes, men at cafes smoke pipes and butchers slaughter sheep on the road.

And Salaam's prices reflect the course of the war in Iraq. The fighting between U.S. forces and Iraqi paramilitary units pushed prices up, and five days without water and electricity spoiled food in homes, raising demand and pushing prices up more. Yet their rise reflects optimism as much as the tug of war between supply and demand.

With bombs and bullets no longer flying here, merchants gambled that shoppers would feel safe enough to return - by foot, on donkey, and in 30-year-old Volvo and Toyota sedans - to shop for what they could find and afford.

And they did. Women dressed in abayas, black tentlike garments that cover all but their faces, walked by holding chickens that resembled large feather dusters. Men, some in traditional robes and others in Western shirts and slacks, sat in groups watching the action.

Everywhere were children in brightly colored clothes but sometimes without shoes. Little boys and girls waved excitedly to passing U.S. troops, with boys showing particular fondness for the thumbs-up.

This city, so uniform in color that it seems as if someone painted everything the same beige, is caught between the chaos of war and the stability of peace. The war seems done here, but a formal humanitarian aid effort will not begin for some time. So soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division are waving at Iraqis from Humvees but waving off pleas for food or medical assistance.

Commanders trained to wage war find themselves trying to figure out how to tell who is truly an important civil or religious figure, how to restore electricity, how to reassure locals that when the division pulls out in a few days, someone else will arrive. Their job is to secure the city so that specialists in humanitarian aid can take over.

What has most reassured Col. Ben Hodges, 1st Brigade commander, is the vibrant street life. The city has roared back in all its rundown glory, shortages and all.

In one sign of the public mood, soldiers who strolled in yesterday's 90-degree heat were surrounded at every turn by friendly, curious residents. A conversation with one inevitably turned into a moving crowd of 30 or more.

Residents argued about whether the electricity problems were the fault of the Americans or the Iraqi regime, but almost everyone loudly thanked the Americans for apparently routing the paramilitary forces loyal to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The day had begun quietly. At dawn, the only sounds came from roosters crowing in stereo. They were joined by howling dogs and the occasional braying donkey. The sun was just rising over the Euphrates, back-lighting the thick palm groves on the banks and glinting off the gold dome of the central mosque.

In 1,500-year old Kufah, the uneven beige bricks preserve a record of how the one-story houses have been built and rebuilt and repaired over the centuries.

The market is the core of the city. Hundreds of merchants have storefronts beginning on the west bank of the Euphrates and running for blocks. Mechanics repair cars at High Speed Engine. And not far away, men sit on mats repairing sandals. Down the road, warm flat bread goes from oven to customer for barely a penny.

By 9 a.m. the farmers' market was in full swing, with many metal shutters raised. Tomatoes the size of racquetballs were piled high outside and for sale at 250 dinars, or 8 cents, a kilogram. Chickens fluttering around in crates cost 1,500 dinars, or 50 cents, but the price did not include the plucking.

One of the most perishable items for sale was ice, made possible by the portable generators that fill some of the gap left by the city's electricity outage. A breadbox-size piece went for 250 dinars and glistened in the hot sun.

The entrepreneurial spirit was not limited to the market. Children tried to make money on U.S. soldiers camped at a school a few blocks away by selling Pepsis for $3 apiece and offering to trade 250-dinar bills worth 8 cents for $1 bills. They found no takers.

Not everyone was prospering. Some people pointed to their stomachs or mouths. Sattar Al-Bhdle, a stout man in a black cloak and white turban, went to see Hodges to discuss just that sort of thing. He said he represented a senior Muslim cleric named Muqtada Al-Sader and wanted to work with the Army to help people obtain water, food and electricity.

"Before, we had no freedom, but we could live," he said. "Now, we have freedom but cannot live."

Hodges said he would meet today with Al-Sader.

One problem, the colonel said, was that Baath Party officials who used to distribute food have fled, so a grain storehouse sits full.

Saed Muhammad hopes conditions improve. His food shop, the size of a storage closet, is stocked with soda, cigarettes and candy. He has nearly run out of goods, and demand for his products has been too low for him to risk ordering more.

Still, he is glad to see U.S. soldiers.

"I am for the war, if it is going to take Saddam Hussein off," he said, holding his 1-year-old daughter, Fatima, in his arms. "I didn't like anything in [the regime]. Many wars. I want everything to be quiet in the shortest time."

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