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Bombs don't stop the business in Baghdad market

As chaos grows, power fails and thousands flee, tenacious merchants persevere by selling flashlights, batteries and even lovebirds.

By Times staff writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 6, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- As he has done for 20 years, Haji Taleb came to the city's Shorja market Saturday to hawk packets of rat poison -- never mind that U.S. forces have penetrated the city and black-clad members of Saddam Hussein's fedayeen militia were in the streets.

"Why shouldn't I?" asked Taleb. "No war will stop me from trying to earn money in an honest way."

Tens of thousands of residents of this ancient city are fleeing. But others, despite days of relentless bombing, no electricity and the nearness of U.S. forces, are struggling to carry on as usual.

On Saturday, with the sound of explosions ringing throughout Baghdad, Taher Al-Haddad declared to a visitor that he has not closed his spice store for a single day since the war began.

"Business is not great, but I must come and see what I can taqtaq," said al-Haddad, using the Iraqi Arabic vernacular for "to see if there is money to be earned."

Because coalition forces entered the capital Saturday, there were not many hawkers in the market and most stores were closed for the first time since the war began.

The street hawkers who did show up knew exactly what would sell: cheap Chinese-made flashlights, batteries and water containers. They did a brisk business, even though prices have doubled during the war. Curiously, a shop selling lovebirds remained open.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis, meanwhile, continued to flee Baghdad, heading to the north and northeast to escape what their leaders promise to be a street-to-street battle for the city.

Electricity went off in Baghdad on Thursday. By Saturday, power was restored to a few areas, but most of the city remained without electricity.

The outage has meant no running water, compounding the woes of the capital and giving it the feel of a city under siege. Long lines at gasoline stations underscored the sense of crisis. Already, the city's telephones were down.

On Saturday, Red Cross workers in Baghdad reported that several hundred wounded and dozens of dead had been brought to four city hospitals since Friday. They could not say how many were civilians.

Advancing U.S. forces have not deterred some in Baghdad from showing defiance.

A street hawker selling cigarettes from a wooden tray tucked a huge Iraqi flag into his belt, explaining: "This is my response to the American aggression."

Tribesmen helping troops and security forces defend the city have hoisted banners bearing the names of their tribes at sandbagged positions.

Iraqi state television remains on the air in the capital, broadcasting patriotic songs. State radio is also broadcasting, exhorting Iraqis to defend their nation.

Like elsewhere in Iraq, the residents of Baghdad were handed up to six months of food rations before the war broke out. The state-run ration system gives Iraqis, among other things, wheat flour, sugar, lentils, soap, milk, beans and detergent. But most have to shop for items like vegetables and fruit, the prices of which, according to retailers, have shot up by nearly 50 percent since the war began.

"We are barely managing," said Hussein Mohammed, a 21-year-old street hawker recently discharged from the army. He carried a shopping bag filled with potatoes and bread.

Many decided to leave the city. Mustafa Kamel drove all night to take his family of 27 to the village of Hit, 120 miles northwest of Baghdad. The highway, he said, was packed with families fleeing the capital.

"The way is paralyzed from here to Hit," he said.

The war, he predicted, would last days, perhaps much longer. Deep down, he said, he believes Hussein will manage to survive, as the president has managed to dominate so many aspects of life here, lurking in every conversation, every whisper.

"I swear to God, he will remain," Kamel said.

But he wouldn't stay to find out how. He planned to finish packing his bags, shutter his business and then join his family, to leave.

"It's a movie and we don't know the end of it," he said.

-- Information from the Associated Press and the Washington Post was used in this report.

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