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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: SOCIETY KEEPS UP COLLECTIVE GUARD
/ FIRST PERSON

Iraq's chord of distrust

As violence plunges, calm is spreading. Yet even at a music shop decked with flowers, optimism has its limits.

October 20, 2008|Tina Susman | Times Staff Writer

The Iraqis who once came regularly to buy bows for violins, reeds for clarinets and traditional ouds to strum have fled. Either that, or they're using their money to buy food, said Khalil, who has had his own store since 1979.

His new customers are ignorant of music but have money to spend, probably because they are involved in abductions, robberies or other crimes, he said.

"I see them wearing gold. It's like the bottom of society has risen to the top," he said, recalling two young men wearing expensive clothes and flashy jewelry who visited recently.

"I'm sure they're kidnappers," Khalil said. They told him they wanted to buy a piano. "I showed him an electric keyboard and he thought it was a piano," he said.

One of the young men said he wanted a violin. Khalil said the customer then pointed at a guitar hanging on the wall and said he'd take that one.

Khalil laughed, but the more he spoke, the more it became clear that even though his business had survived and was faring relatively well, he had deep doubts about the future, and frustrations about the present. He compared the Iraqi government to a bunch of convicts transplanted from Alcatraz and given suits and ties to wear.

The best thing he could find to say about life now was that killers no longer ruled the streets. "Maybe it's temporary," he said. "Maybe they're committing other crimes now. But the killing is less."

Back at the office, I described the irony of Khalil to Iraqi colleagues. On the one hand, he represented hope by facing down threats and keeping his business open. On the other, he represented the suspicion that courses through society by renaming his business and hiding his Sunni roots from the Shiites who dominate Baghdad.

A member of our staff, Mohammed, said he could understand.

He told of being in a small store in a Shiite neighborhood, shopping for car parts with a friend. His son's name is Omar, a Sunni name, and close friends often call the staffer Abu Omar, or "father of Omar."

His companion in the shop was trying to get his attention and said loudly enough for everyone to hear, "Abu Omar! Abu Omar!"

Suddenly, the store fell silent. Everyone looked around, wanting to know who the Sunni in the crowd was. Mohammed quickly paid for his goods and left.

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tina.susman@latimes.com

Times staff writers Usama Redha and Saif Rasheed contributed to this report.

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