December 9, 2003

With More Money to Spend, Middle-Class Iraqis Go Shopping


New York Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Dec. 8 — They were a father and son shopping for a car for the young man, a family ritual as common as any in the United States.

It was unfolding on a recent evening here, though, to the cadence of distant gunfire and explosions. Aadel Kadhem, 43, and his 23-year-old son, Mohammed, walked around a pair of black BMW's, opening the doors, staring through the windows. Aadel Kadhem paints automobiles for a living, and his income has risen tenfold since the fall of Saddam Hussein's government, he said, allowing him to squirrel away $3,000 for a car for his son.

"The situation is still tight for us, but we have a bit to play with," Mr. Kadhem said. "In the past, the government wanted to fight against the citizens; they wanted this country to be underdeveloped. But my income now is much stronger than before."

Jamal Nasir, the owner of the car shop, the Black Gold Company, looked on with a glint in his eye and a smile on his lips. "Because of small salaries before, many people couldn't buy cars," he said. "Now I sell to all sectors of society. It's the wheel of life. Everybody's working, getting better salaries than before."

Well, not exactly everybody. About 60 percent of Iraqis have no jobs; those who do are often living in fear because of the lack of security. Still, a swath of middle-class society — particularly government workers like doctors, teachers and administrators — has experienced a tremendous jump in income since the American-led occupation began. That is driving an exultant boom in demand for luxury goods — cars, televisions, fine clothing, expensive perfumes. It has also heightened fears of crime among the beneficiaries because street robberies remain rampant here.

Import tariffs have been scrapped until the end of the year; the United Nations trade embargo is gone. Stores have sprung up all over the city. Before the American-led invasion in March, for example, people in Baghdad bought cars from two large bazaars; now they go to dozens of small shops like Mr. Nasir's. Large trucks carrying used automobiles are a common sight at border crossings; a spokesman for the Oil Ministry estimated that 250,000 cars had entered Iraq since spring.

Mr. Nasir, who before the invasion sold clothes and small household appliances, said he now bought automobiles wholesale at a market in Amman, the Jordanian capital. Under Mr. Hussein's rule, a car bought outside the country for $4,000 would be slapped with a $2,500 tariff, driving up the retail price, Mr. Nasir said. Cars, especially luxury German imports like BMW's and Mercedeses, were not affordable.

Now, prices have dropped and the luxury brands are the most sought after, Mr. Nasir said as he stood in front of two BMW's he hoped to sell for $5,000 and $11,000.

His shop is on Outer Karada Street, one of Baghdad's busiest commercial streets. People flock there now to buy washing machines, television sets and satellite dishes.

A reporter who interviewed 85 store owners on a half-mile stretch found that 33 were selling satellite dishes and receivers, up from just two before the invasion. The dishes were banned by Mr. Hussein, who wanted to keep Iraqis isolated. People caught selling dishes were sent to prison for six months. Demand exploded as soon as Mr. Hussein was ousted.

"The satellite business nowadays in Baghdad, it's the best business we can choose," said Aysar Abdullah, one of about 10 satellite equipment wholesalers in Baghdad.

"The first month was unbelievable," he said. "Two trucks would deliver equipment to my store in the morning. By evening, all my goods would be gone."

Twelve-foot towers of hundreds of black stands for satellite dishes surround Mr. Abdullah's store. Customers dart in and out, rolling gray Syrian-made dishes. Mr. Abdullah estimated that he sold 500 dishes a day to retailers and 200 to 300 a week to individuals.

"We were deprived of many things before," said Luay Hasoon, a 54-year-old shopper whose government pension has jumped to $20 a month, from $2 a month.

"Now it's up to one's mind whether to buy something or not," she said. "It's a civilized thing."

Down the street, another retired government worker, this one enjoying a sixfold pension increase, was browsing through Turkish suits and leather jackets.

"Now I want to buy a Japanese car," the shopper, Abdul Kazim al-Janabi, said with a grin, standing by a case of $65 bottles of Givenchy perfume.

The store owner, Loay Hamandi, told a visitor that he was preparing to fly to the Netherlands for discussions with a clothing company, and that he had just returned from a trip to Turkey, where he had visited a factory about 40 miles outside of Istanbul. He described the business environment: no import taxes or bribes, and no fear of government officials suspicious of his foreign dealings.

"With Saddam's security and Saddam's staff, if you had any connections with other countries, they might detain you, even if you had done nothing," Mr. Hamandi said.

But Mr. Hamandi did not have kind words about the American occupiers in Iraq. Other store owners and shoppers said they felt the same way. Better incomes amount to little, they said, without security on the streets.

Mr. Hamandi said that he was afraid to stay open late at night and that the stores on his block were paying $50 a month each to hire five armed guards. Mr. Abdullah, the satellite dish salesman, said armed bandits had tried to rob two of his delivery trucks.

"Money beside humiliation means nothing; money beside this security situation also means nothing," he said, as four guards milled around his store.

"Let the Americans take all the profits I have," he said. "But let me feel secure again. Let me send my 9-year-old son to school without an escort."