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Vendors lament razing of illegal Baghdad market

October 31, 2008|Usama Redha | Redha is a Times staff writer.

BAGHDAD — The day started like every other in Hurriya, a working-class district in Baghdad. By 7 a.m., vendors had begun opening the stalls that line the sidewalks, offering makeup, books, toys, phones and just about anything else to shoppers browsing one of the neighborhood's informal outdoor markets.

But about 2 p.m., bulldozers showed up, guarded by Iraqi security forces. Some witnesses said U.S. troops also were present. The heavy machines moved quickly last week to destroy the illegal marketplace, which had grown to cover a large section of sidewalk and is similar to scores of others across the capital.

The vendors operating the capital's illegal stalls for the most part are not uneducated. But most of those in Hurriya have university degrees or at least high school diplomas. They haven't been able to find decent jobs because of the war's effect on Iraq's economy, and those who are employed often do not earn enough to support a family and pay for a home. So they turned to street-selling to supplement their incomes.

"I don't know what to do," said Udai, a 28-year-old teacher, as he surveyed the ruins of his small kiosk, from where he had sold hair accessories and women's underwear until the Oct. 21 raid.

Udai, who did not want his full name published, got married two years ago and is awaiting the birth of his first child. He would work as a teacher from morning until afternoon, and then set up his kiosk about 4 p.m., staying there until nightfall.

"I established this job because my salary will not be enough" when the baby comes, said Udai, as other vendors and passersby picked through the market's remains.

Sellers said they should have been given a warning of what was to come. "How should I support my family now? Shall I steal?" lamented Alaa, 36, whose stall also was crushed.

Some locals said there had been rumors of a raid. But they said they were shocked and angry at the level of destruction.

Some accused Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki of waging war against poor people and said this was a sign of his government's failure to help ordinary Iraqis struggling to recover from nearly six years of war.

But a spokesman for the Baghdad municipal government, Hakim Abdulzahra, said the destruction of such illegal stalls around the city was necessary to prevent what he called the "mutilation that turns Baghdad into a village."

Abdulzahra said the city government goes out of its way to issue warnings to illegal vendors and usually gives them several before removing the stalls.

Vendors are supposed to have contracts with the municipality and pay fees for their places of business, he said. There are rules about where such kiosks can be erected to prevent them from blocking sidewalks and streets.

"How long can we continue to spoil them?" Abdulzahra said. "They are violators."

A food vendor, Abu Zahra, 39, said the U.S. forces he saw appeared to be monitoring the operation, not taking part in it. He accused the Iraqi forces of being rude and of detaining anyone who tried to reason with them.

"This so-called elected government treats people harshly," he said. "Even the strangers, the Americans, have mercy on Iraqi people more than it has."

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latimes.com

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