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Iraqis buying tons of U.S. military surplus items

COLUMN ONE

Fencing, fridges, latrines — everything must go before the deadline for troop withdrawal. Some hesitate to acquire the invaders' castoffs, but the price is right.

June 30, 2010|By Liz Sly, Los Angeles Times
  • Munir Ibrahim Ismail and his family live on the outskirts of Fallouja, in a trailer home converted from a U.S. military latrine.
Munir Ibrahim Ismail and his family live on the outskirts of Fallouja, in… (Liz Sly / Los Angeles Times )

Reporting from Fallouja, Iraq — On the outskirts of this former insurgent stronghold, Munir Ibrahim Ismail and his family have taken up residence in an American military latrine.

They picked up the trailer full of toilets at a junkyard for about $5,000 — less than it would have cost them to build a real house — and set to work. They tore out the toilet bowls and scrubbed the trailer for days with disinfectant. They ripped off tiles, poured a concrete floor and added a window. They erected a divider to create two rooms and tacked on a concrete kitchen at the back.

Presto! A little piece of the American occupation had become a home.

"It does disgust us that this used to be a toilet for the invaders," said Ismail, 34, who lost his home, as well as two brothers, in the 2004 battle between Marines and insurgents for control of Fallouja. "But we didn't have any other option. It's the best we could afford."

As U.S. troops accelerate their withdrawal from Iraq, the military is offloading thousands of tons of unwanted junk accumulated during seven years in the country by selling it to dealers.

And Iraqis are snapping up the stuff at yard sales, weaving the detritus of America's occupation into the fabric of their daily lives.

A crude wooden hut with "ARMY" stenciled over the door and 16 bunk beds inside — going for $2,000 at one Fallouja yard — might be picked up by a farmer to store grain, said salesman Ali Mahmoud. Others are buying rolls of Hesco wire, used to fortify bases, to erect fences for livestock. Generators and air conditioners are the most sought-after items, and the most profitable for dealers, as Iraqis struggle to cope with hot summer days without electricity.

And then there are the things that GIs buy or bring to ease the daily discomforts of a life far from home. Washing machines, microwaves, satellite dishes, office chairs, a coffee maker and a tattered copy of the Bible lay strewn around another yard on the fringes of the town. A mini-fridge indelibly inscribed with an obscene warning to stay out is for sale for $50.

Only those items that are deemed surplus to American or Iraqi security force requirements are being sold, said Brig. Gen. Gustave Perna, who is in charge of logistics for the U.S. military. They account for a fraction of the vast quantities of equipment being transported out of Iraq, in what U.S. officials are calling their biggest movement of people and machines since World War II.

Much of the withdrawal has already happened, barely noticed by a populace weary of war and more anxious about what comes next than what has gone before. Since troop levels peaked at 166,000 in 2007, about 80,000 have left. An additional 35,000 or so will go in the next two months, in fulfillment of President Obama's pledge to reduce the size of the force to 50,000 by Sept. 1.

Moving the people is easy, commanders say. It's the equipment — 1.7 million items from 405 bases — that has posed the biggest logistical challenge. About 1.1 million pieces have been removed, snaking south out of the country at night on convoys bound for Kuwait.

The pace will accelerate in the coming weeks, as the military dispatches 600,000 more items, including tanks, computers, and radar and surveillance equipment, U.S. officials say.

Some, including Humvees and other military vehicles, are being shipped to Afghanistan to support the war effort there. Most, however, are being sent back to the U.S.

In addition, 500,000 items have been handed over to the government of Iraq for use mainly by the Iraqi security forces, including items such as generators and trailers that would cost more to ship than to leave behind.

Then there's the junk, 40 million pounds of which has been sold to Iraqi dealers, netting the U.S. government about $1 million since the beginning of 2009. More is expected to follow as the military sets its sights on the December 2011 deadline for the departure of all U.S. troops, and the closure of the remaining 94 bases.

Items are showing up for sale in cities across the country, including Fallouja, the town in the western province of Anbar that became emblematic of the ferocity of the Sunni Arab-led insurgency before it was pacified by the revolt of the province's tribesmen against the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007.

The town's hard-line clergy, who once wielded considerable influence over public opinion, have issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, against ownership of the discarded U.S. goods, deemed "tarnished" by the invaders, said Sheik Abdul Hamid Jumaili, a spokesman for Fallouja's fatwa committee.

Yet in a sign of how times have changed, the ruling does not seem to have had much effect on the booming business of selling America's castoffs.

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