Baghdad merchants tough it out

Signs of recovery arise despite safety concerns

War in Iraq

April 14, 2003|By John Murphy and Todd Richissin | John Murphy and Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- At the Ishtargate Supermarket yesterday, the four Younan brothers stayed busy in familiar ways at the family business. Dane directed the others, Rami worked the cash register, Rafi helped customers and Fady packed goods or carried them to customers' cars.

The most important employee, though, was a newcomer, Faris Allami, who stood just inside the door, an AK-47 assault rifle held firmly in his hands. His presence did not make for an ideal welcome, but at least the store was open.

The same cannot be said for Yassar Hussein's electrical supply business, just a few minutes away at one of the city's busiest auto supply markets on Musakar al-Rashid Street. When bombs started falling on Baghdad a month ago, Hussein pulled his gate closed, turned the key and placed a guard out front. "I told him, `Go and buy a gun on my account to protect it,'" Hussein said.

Even with armed protection, Hussein was too terrified of looters and militias to reopen for business yesterday. Neighboring merchants clearly shared his outlook. Streets that would have been jammed with traders on any other Sunday were empty except for a pair of stray dogs sniffing piles of trash.

Less than a week after U.S. forces reached the center of Baghdad, the first signs of recovery could be found in supermarkets such as Ishtargate. A smattering of stores was open, although with mostly empty shelves. Street vendors sold piles of rotten tomatoes, cucumbers and eggs. Boys peddled shoeshines. One liquor merchant opened his doors to anyone looking to buy dusty bottles of 12-year-old whiskey and rusted cans of beer.

But for stability to return to the capital, residents such as Hussein will need to be convinced that they are safe to venture out of their homes and open their businesses. Many Iraqis blame the United States for the problems because they see the military riding around their city in tanks while people steal from businesses, homes, even hospitals.

The constant threats posed by looters, armed militias and pockets of resistance by paramilitary groups loyal to Saddam Hussein give residents reason to stay indoors. Gunshots crackled nearly every hour yesterday. Residents barricaded the entrances of their streets with tires, chairs, and scrap metal. At dusk, coils of gray smoke rose from new fires burning in the city.

On Musakar al-Rashid Street, Hussein reached under the driver's seat of his Toyota to show off what he thinks will help him survive in Baghdad: a 9 mm pistol.

"Unless they see security 100 percent, we will not open," promised Hussein as he stood outside his padlocked store.

This is not the Baghdad that Hussein once knew. Before the war, he says, the trash was picked up in the streets, he was doing a brisk business importing ceiling fans, fluorescent bulbs and other electrical supplies -- albeit with punishing Iraqi taxes -- and there were hospital services and government offices.

Then, when the war started, he fled 80 miles north to stay with relatives in Samarra.

Yesterday, hoping the worst of the fighting was over, he returned to a city without electricity and where he feared his business would no longer be standing.

"I come to my shop and my warehouse to make sure nothing was stolen by those crazy people," he said.

Nothing was. Still, Hussein lashed out at the United States for the chaos the war brought to his country. While U.S. forces aggressively protected the country's oil fields -- seizing hundreds of them during the first 24 hours of the war -- they ignored the destruction brought by looters to civil institutions.

"Why didn't you protect the hospitals? The government departments? Is the oil more important than the humans?" he asked.

Ishtargate Supermarket never closed its doors, according to Nasei Younan, father of the four Younan brothers. He saw the shortages coming before the first bombs were dropped and set out to cut deals with wholesalers so he could keep his shelves stocked. Most of his contacts, though, fled Baghdad, or are not conducting business, so he has depended on a couple of dealers who had transferred their food from their warehouses to their homes.

They are charging him double the usual prices, and he is passing the increases on to his customers.

"This is normal because when there are shortages the prices must go up, so people are not mad at me," he said. "Everything is available but we cannot store milk."

His words about the availability, though, should be considered a sales pitch.

He has plenty of light bulbs, which is not surprising given that most of Baghdad is without electricity, and he is fully stocked in cleaning supplies, which are not anywhere near a priority for people here.

But on the store's shelves, there is this: Tabasco sauce, honey, instant coffee, pasta, pepper, mayonnaise, vegetable oil, milk powder, instant coffee, four apples, cheese, a snorkel set, playing cards and a plastic Santa Claus. That is about it.

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