Baghdad Merchants Astounded at McCain's Claims of Security
They say the market he saw, surrounded by GIs and humvees, wasn't real life
BAGHDAD -- A day after members of an American congressional delegation led by Sen. John McCain pointed to their brief visit to Baghdad's central market as evidence that the new security plan for the city is working, the merchants there were incredulous about the Americans' conclusions."What are they talking about?" Ali Jassim Faiyad, the owner of an electrical appliances shop in the market, said Monday. "The security procedures were abnormal!"
The delegation arrived at the market, which is called Shorja, on Sunday with more than 100 soldiers in armored humvees -- the equivalent of an entire company -- and attack helicopters circled overhead, a senior American military official in Baghdad said. The soldiers redirected traffic from the area and restricted access to the Americans, witnesses said, and sharpshooters were posted on the rooftops. The congressmen wore bulletproof vests throughout their hourlong visit.
"They paralyzed the market when they came," Faiyad said in his shop on Monday. "This was only for the media."
He added, "This will not change anything."
At a news conference shortly after their outing, McCain, R-Ariz., and his three congressional colleagues described Shorja as a safe, bustling place full of hopeful and warmly welcoming Iraqis -- "like a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summertime," offered Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., who was a member of the delegation.
But the market that the congressmen said they saw is fundamentally different from the market Iraqis know.
Merchants and customers say that a campaign by insurgents to attack Baghdad's markets has put many shop owners out of business and forced radical changes in the way people shop.
Shorja, the city's oldest and largest market, set in a sprawling labyrinth of narrow streets and alleyways, has been bombed at least a half-dozen times since last summer.
At least 61 people were killed and many more wounded in a three-pronged attack there on Feb. 12, involving two vehicle bombs and a roadside bomb.
American and Iraq security forces have tried to protect Shorja and other markets against car bombs by restricting traffic in some shopping areas and erecting blast walls around the markets' perimeters. But these measures, while making the markets safer, have not made them safe.
In the latest large-scale attack on a Baghdad market, at least 60 people, most of them women and children, were killed Thursday when a man wrapped in an explosives belt walked around such barriers into a crowded street market in the Shaab neighborhood and detonated himself.
In recent weeks, snipers hidden in Shorja's bazaar have killed several people, merchants and the police say, and gunfights have erupted between militants and the Iraqi security forces in the area.
During the Americans' visit on Sunday, they were buttonholed by merchants and customers who wanted to talk about how unsafe they felt and the urgent need for more security in the markets and throughout the city, witnesses said.
"They asked about our conditions and we told them the situation was bad," said Aboud Sharif Kadhoury, 63, who peddles prayer rugs at a sidewalk stand. He said he sold a small prayer rug worth less than $1 to Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the American forces in Iraq, who accompanied the congressional delegation. (Petraeus paid $20 and told Kadhoury to keep the change, the vendor said.)
Kadhoury said he lost more than $2,000 worth of merchandise in the triple bombing in February. "I was hit in the head and back with shrapnel," he said.
"Everybody complained to them," said Ali Youssef, 39, who sells glassware from a sidewalk stand down the block from Kadhoury. "We told them we were harmed."
He and other merchants used to keep their shops open until dusk, but with the falloff in customers as a result of the attacks, and a nightly curfew, most shop owners close their businesses in the early afternoon.
"This area here is very dangerous," said Youssef, who lost his shop in the February attack. "They cannot secure it."
Ahmad Fadam and Wisam A. Habeeb contributed reporting.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company