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Thu, Nov 13, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Drugs, AK-47s and passports -- Basra market has it all

STOLEN GOODS Of all the looted merchandise for sale in the Old Market in the city, passports promising a way out of impoverished Iraq are among the most popular


If you're looking for a Kalashnikov rifle, bathroom tiles, amphetamines, an Iraqi passport or a new pair of shoes, there's a place in southern Iraq that can meet all your shopping needs.

Basra's Old Market, a noisy, stinking outdoor emporium of stolen goods, sits happily between the city's main police station and a mosque, seemingly unworried and untouched by any authority.

One end of the market is a dumping ground for everything that was ripped from Basra's public buildings in the looting frenzy that followed the city's fall in the US-led invasion which ousted Saddam Hussein in April.

The best of it is long gone. Now salesmen sit forlornly next to piles of wooden doorframes, broken computers, odd pieces of office furniture and stacks of ceramic tiles chiselled from the walls and floors of bathrooms.

Next are car accessories, wing mirrors, hub caps and bits of engines extracted from parked, stolen or broken down cars.

"Ali Baba, all Ali Baba," muttered Hussam, using Iraq's generic term for thieves. A student, Hussam says he is appalled by the lawlessness in postwar Basra that has allowed petty theft to flourish.

But then again, his uncle's car needs a new fan belt, and he won't find one cheaper anywhere else.

"They steal from us and we buy from them," he said, eyeing a grubby stallholder with distaste. "That is how our economy works now. There is no government, no law to stop them. So what can we do?"

Away from the street, past old women beggars sitting in the dirt and children selling fluffy yellow chicks stuffed into a cardboard box, is the more serious business of the market.

Piles of bullets, Beretta hand-guns and Kalashnikovs are laid out carefully next to ornamental knives and silver jewelry. Hand grenades and machineguns are also said to be available but not on open sale.

The asking price for a Kalashnikov is US$150; Hussam says he could get one for less than US$100.

Drugs are much cheaper. Amphetamines, Viagra, diazepam, valium, high-dose painkillers all sell for just 250 dinars (US$0.12) a strip.

Many come from hospitals and pharmacies looted after the war. According to Basra lore, the amphetamines were standard issue for Saddam's Fedayeen militia, and have since found their way to market stalls.

Whatever their provenance, the drugs are feeding addiction among Basra's youth. A survey by the aid agency Save the Children found that 60 percent of the city's adolescents regularly take prescription drugs bought at markets and off the street.

Mahmoud Naeem, selling drugs from a wooden table, said he used to work for the city administration and lost his job because of the war. He doesn't know what he is selling and doesn't care who is buying. It's just a living.

British troops controlling Basra and the Iraqi police they have trained have launched numerous raids into the market to shut down drugs and weapons stalls.

But in a city where tens of thousands have been left unemployed by the collapse of Saddam's huge state sector, it's hard to keep a good business down.

"I do this to feed my children," said Naeem, looking stony faced at the little foil strips tied with elastic bands. "And as long as they need food I'll keep doing it."

At the end of the market, beyond the fake designer clothes and fly-infested fish and meat stands, one stall has attracted an eager, jostling audience.

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