For better or worse, black market brisk

Iraq's thriving illegal commerce contrasts sharply with the slow US reconstruction.

When five Humvees from Eagle Troop of the US Army's 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment rolled into Souk Orfally, an open-air black market in eastern Baghdad, they beheld an amazing sight. There in the jaw of a front-end loader was Saddam Hussein, all 15 feet of him in Italian-crafted bronze. His right arm lay in the dust beside a dump truck.

A scruffy army of looters, smugglers, and profiteers watched with amusement as the former Iraqi president was sold for scrap. "This is the right place for this statue to be - in the garbage," says Hussain Ali As-Sayedi, who purchased the statue to melt down and sell.

The flourishing black market here stands in troubling contrast to the slow and tentative steps taken by US officials to restore control and move toward an interim government. Even as ordinary Iraqis long for a sense of order and business as usual, places like Souk Orfally are providing a financial incentive for the looting that continues to wrack Baghdad.

This market is more than ready for anything that can be carried, pried, ripped, or sawed out of a government facility. Such looting, in turn, is taking US forces away from tasks like restoring power and water service, and is instead putting them on patrol at any government facility containing anything of value.

The situation has so complicated efforts to stabilize and rebuild the country that Eagle Troop is investigating Souk Orfally to shut it down.

"This is tearing this country apart, little by little," says Capt. Stacey Corn of Cleveland, Tenn.

Personnel change

The effort to restore order to Baghdad, which has been taking longer than many had expected, is part of the backdrop for this week's appointment of a new US official, L. Paul Bremer, to supplant retired Gen. Jay Garner in directing Iraq's transition.

For now, though, it's business as usual at Souk Orfally. The market itself is two blocks long and is little more than a dusty open space. Merchants deal mostly in industrial materials taken from government offices or government-owned industries. It is piled haphazardly, and potential buyers and sellers stand casually nearby negotiating prices.

It is not unusual to see small pickup trucks overloaded with bags of cement, or pieces of aluminum door and window frames. There are even donkey carts weighed down with long strands of steel reinforcing bars dragging on the street behind.

First Sgt. Kenneth Smith of Sedalia, Mo., who is leading the black-market investigation, says he is surprised at how blatant Iraqi criminals are. "They sit out there and let you see them stealing in broad daylight," he says. "They might stop for a moment, but then they come right back."

Some of the material passing through Souk Orfally - like the Hussein statue, which was once located at the Baghdad International Fair - will be melted down in Baghdad industrial furnaces before being trucked north to Kurdish areas. The most active trade currently involves aluminum, lead, copper, steel, and brass, sources say.

The demand for copper, in fact, is in large part responsible for the thick black smoke that rises occasionally at various places throughout the city. After obtaining coils of wire, the looters burn the outer insulation, leaving the somewhat charred but valuable copper wire.

And in some cases, lead is being molded into bricks marked as having been manufactured in Lebanon.

Kurdish truck drivers transporting the goods out of Baghdad say they must pay a tax at a key Kurdish checkpoint in northern Iraq. But after that, they are free to carry their loads across Iraq's open northern border into lucrative markets in Iran, Turkey, and Syria.

"If the US forces close the borders with Iran and Turkey, everything will be over," notes a Kurdish truck driver.

Not all the black marketeers are Kurds. Sergeant Smith says there is a wide range of buyers and sellers seeking to profit from the burgeoning Baghdad underworld.

An attitude of entitlement

Many feel that it is not a crime to raid the offices and facilities of the former regime. Rather, a widespread attitude persists among Iraqis that they are entitled to take anything from a government building.

Near the center of the market Karim Shaban is selling a coil of heavy steel cable. It is the kind often used to help support power and telephone poles. He says he wants 350 Iraqi dinars per kilo, or 26,250 dinars for the entire coil. That's about $10.

"But wasn't this looted from the power company?" a news reporter asks. Mr. Shaban shakes his head.

"This was from the [government's] industrialization facilities," Shaban says. "All that we have here belongs to the people."

"If it belongs to the people, why do I have to pay you, rather than the government, for it?" the reporter asks. "If it belongs to the people, why is it being shipped to Iran and Turkey?"

Several others listening in on the conversation nod in agreement with the question. It is clear that Iraqis enjoy a good debate.

Shaban rises to the challenge. He says he will not sell this coil of cable to anyone who might take it outside Iraq. "We will not smuggle this one," he says. "We will use it to make plates or pots for cooking that can be sold here in Iraq."

"I'll pay double the price to take it outside Iraq," the reporter says.

"Even if it is fivefold, I will not sell," Shaban replies. But several who overhear the conversation say they do not believe him.

In response, Shaban says, "We are not employed. We have no jobs," he says. "All we have is looting."

"I understand the anger [at the deposed regime]," says Captain Corn. "But if the Iraqis would just stop and think for a moment, they are destroying their infrastructure and their future."

There is nothing new about Souk Orfally. It was first established as a secret market in 1991 after the first Gulf War, says Abdul Sittar, a market regular. He says it was kept operating over the years by bribing police and local government officials.

Salem Rashid Mahud says he has come from Mosul to the market to purchase brass artillery shells. The shells are collected from the battlefield, dumped in piles here, and sold as scrap.

Mr. Mahud says he paid $750 for 15 tons of artillery shells. He says once the shells are melted, he should be able to sell the brass for $1,500.

In the meantime, the US Army's investigation continues.

"Someone sat down and planned this - that when the regime falls, there won't be any police force and we'll be able to get all this stuff," Corn says. "Once we figure it out, we'll be able to take them down and stop all these resources being taken from the country."

He adds, "I just hope they don't know how to shoot."

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