Terror Takes Toll on Market, Vendors

Daily News Article   —   Posted on February 7, 2007

(by James Palmer, WashingtonTimes.com) BAGHDAD — Along a row of tables that crowd a bustling sidewalk, women in billowing black abayas sift through heaps of newly picked tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, carrots, cauliflower and potatoes.
    Down the street, a fishmonger watches over a pushcart filled with carp feebly splashing in the cloudy water for their last breaths.
    This is the Abu Shujaa Market in the Karrada district of central Baghdad, a nearly century-old mishmash of pushcarts, collapsible stalls and permanent shops.
    Such marketplaces have become favorite targets for sectarian attacks, including a horrific suicide truck bombing Saturday that killed at least 135 persons — the deadliest single assault in the 46 months of the war.
    Police, ever on the watch for car bombs, prevent most vehicles from parking at the side of the road, while shop owners often place barricades along the curbs to prevent unfamiliar drivers from stopping in front of their businesses.
    This area suffered five terrorist strikes last year, according to local residents and traders. Yesterday, merchants at Abu Shujaa complained that the deteriorating security had hurt their sales, even as their costs continue to climb.
    Hamada Mohammed Ali, a 30-year-old produce vendor, said his daily earnings have fallen by half, to just under $100, since he inherited his sprawling stand from his father two years ago.
    “Fewer people are coming by because they’re afraid,” Mr. Ali said, as he sat perched on a plastic crate above a scale and a set of metal measuring weights.
    Uday Kasim, 29, who runs the butcher shop his family has owned since 1973, said many of his regular customers have left the country, and today he earns “just enough to live on.” All of the lamb and beef Mr. Kasim sells in his shop must be hauled over increasingly dangerous roads from farms outside of the capital.
    Rather than pay someone else, produce seller Hussein Gatti, 37, braves some of Iraq’s most treacherous roads to secure his fruits and vegetables. The round trip to Mahmoudiya, 11 miles each way, often takes him more than two hours.
    Other merchants say they are unable to cut their expenses and are on the verge of going broke.
    Hassam Nadim, 37, who peddles housewares from a space approximately 20 feet deep and 5 feet wide, said he is behind on last month’s rent of roughly $230.
    “My business is down because of the explosions, but the government is doing nothing to protect us,” Mr. Nadim complained.
    The one sector that appears to be thriving in the market is the pharmaceutical industry. Akram Najy, 69, a pharmacist here for four decades, said prescriptions for sedatives remain steady, and demand for cold medications at this time of year is as high as ever.
    The shoppers, for their part, grumble that rising prices are forcing them to limit their purchases to essential items, and the constant threat of car bombs and mortars deters them from lingering in one place.
    Abdul Razak, a 61-year-old clerk in the Agriculture Ministry, said he can afford to spend only little more than $23 a day to feed a household of 12. “I buy vegetables every day, but I can only afford fruit once a week.”
    Mr. Ali, the produce vendor, said he has raised his prices 10 percent to compensate for his dwindling customer base, so now a pound of potatoes or tomatoes at his stand costs roughly 37 cents.
    As a consequence, shoppers have little left to spend with people like 28-year-old fishmonger Raad Ahmed. “I can’t sell more than 15,000 dinars ($11.63) a day,” Mr. Ahmed said.
    For the enterprising, however, there are opportunities created by the chronically faltering infrastructure.
    Waleed Khalid now sells 12 kerosene lanterns a day on the sidewalk outside of his brother’s hardware shop.
    “I came out to sell these things because no one was coming into the shop,” said the 26-year-old Mr. Khalid.

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