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For Iraqis, a Celebratory Feast 'Without Happiness'

November 25, 2003|John Hendren | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The three-day feast of Eid al-Fitr usually brings all-night parties, markets bustling with shoppers and bursts of celebratory gunfire. For Muslims who indulge, it also usually means the first alcoholic drink in weeks.

The celebration that marks an end to Ramadan -- a month of prayer and dawn-to-dusk fasting -- brought almost none of these things this year. At the dawn of their first Eid without Saddam Hussein, many Iraqi Sunni Muslims held somber celebrations. Their Shiite neighbors plan to follow suit today.

"Last Eid we were waiting for the Americans to attack," said Fawzi Asaad, co-owner of the Al Rayash jewelry shop in Baghdad's Karada district. "This year we're waiting for security."

The U.S. military has banned gunfire by Iraqis, including celebratory firing into the air. Some liquor stores have closed because of attacks and threats by religious conservatives. And a combination of relatively high crime, high unemployment and somber spirits has left sales during one of the biggest shopping periods of the year well below their usual level, merchants said.

"This is Eid without happiness," said Nabil Hermes Hanna, owner of a restaurant and four clothing boutiques that once catered to Baghdad's upper class. "Now we live in a jungle. There is nothing -- no rules, no security, no government."

The start and end of Ramadan depends on the waxing and waning of the moon. Sunnis began celebrating Eid on Monday after imams in northern Iraq, with the best view of the crescent moon, deemed the lunar cycle over. Shiite clerics, who contest their Sunni rivals over religious and other issues, demurred and continued to pray and fast for another day.

Shoppers turned out in smaller numbers this year, avoiding some districts entirely. Women, disproportionately absent from the capital's unruly streets, could be seen at the markets, almost invariably in pairs or escorted by men.

Officials with the U.S.-led coalition say crime in the capital has plunged dramatically, bringing visibly improved order on the streets, even as attacks on coalition authorities have doubled, to 30 a day, since summer.

U.S. military forces and Iraqi police, on high alert over the prospect that the holiday would bring intensified attacks, have maintained heavy security. Soldiers in helicopters have kept watch over Baghdad, and police brought out newly funded vehicles, equipment and staff.

"Compared to three months ago, the situation is much better and still improving," said Lt. Col. Haythem Azzawi, deputy chief of Baghdad's Police Rescue Service, who said his men recently arrested a number of Hussein's former Fedayeen Saddam paramilitary troops who were armed with ground-to-air missile launchers.

But coalition officials acknowledge that perception has lagged reality. And violent crime continues to occur at levels unheard of during Hussein's rule.

"This time of year, most people would stay out all night. This year, many families won't go past the end of their streets," said Saif Noori, who picked up some new shirts at Hawatmah, a clothing store that sells mostly Turkish-made fashions bearing Italian-sounding names.

On the sidewalk, from behind a card table piled with modestly priced plaid shirts, Mohsim Jassim was more blunt.

"Saddam was better," said Mohsim, 15, as his mother nodded in agreement. "He gave us security."

Sales at Hawatmah are about half what they were last year, said owner Imad Labeeb. They might have fallen further, he said, but half his current customers abandoned less-safe neighborhoods and switched to the Karada district, where his shop is located.

A few minutes' drive away, the streets in the once-bustling Sadoun district were empty at 7 p.m., the district's electricity cut despite a government policy of giving businesses priority access to scarce power.

The arrival of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority has been a boon to some businesses, filling the streets with satellite dishes, televisions, appliances and shops that cater largely to foreigners and government workers.

The occupation has also given government workers greater buying power. Shopper Noori earned about 85,000 Iraqi dinars a month, or $42 in current dollars, as a shop clerk. Now he earns 200,000 dinars, about $100 a month, guarding buildings for the occupation's Facilities Protective Service.

The occupation's spending has had other effects. Prices of goods have soared 30% thanks to the influx of dollars, Iraqi economist Rokan Bawi told the newspaper Iraq Today.

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