McCain Wrong on Iraq Security, Merchants Say
Tuesday 03 April 2007
Baghdad - A day after members of an American Congressional delegation led by Senator John McCain pointed to their brief visit to Baghdad's central market as evidence that the new security plan for the city was working, the merchants there were incredulous about the Americans' conclusions.
"What are they talking about?" Ali Jassim Faiyad, the owner of an electrical appliances shop in the market, said Monday. "The security procedures were abnormal!"
The delegation arrived at the market, which is called Shorja, on Sunday with more than 100 soldiers in armored Humvees - the equivalent of an entire company - and attack helicopters circled overhead, a senior American military official in Baghdad said. The soldiers redirected traffic from the area and restricted access to the Americans, witnesses said, and sharpshooters were posted on the roofs. The congressmen wore bulletproof vests throughout their hourlong visit.
"They paralyzed the market when they came," Mr. Faiyad said during an interview in his shop on Monday. "This was only for the media."
He added, "This will not change anything."
At a news conference shortly after their outing, Mr. McCain, an Arizona Republican, and his three Congressional colleagues described Shorja as a safe, bustling place full of hopeful and warmly welcoming Iraqis - "like a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summertime," offered Representative Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican who was a member of the delegation.
But the market that the congressmen said they saw is fundamentally different from the market Iraqis know.
Merchants and customers say that a campaign by insurgents to attack Baghdad's markets has put many shop owners out of business and forced radical changes in the way people shop. Shorja, the city's oldest and largest market, set in a sprawling labyrinth of narrow streets and alleyways, has been bombed at least a half-dozen times since last summer.
At least 61 people were killed and many more wounded in a three-pronged attack there on Feb. 12 involving two vehicle bombs and a roadside bomb.
American and Iraqi security forces have tried to protect Shorja and other markets against car bombs by restricting vehicular traffic in some shopping areas and erecting blast walls around the markets' perimeters. But those measures, while making the markets safer, have not made them safe.
In the latest large-scale attack on a Baghdad market, at least 60 people, most of them women and children, were killed last Thursday when a man wrapped in an explosives belt walked around such barriers into a crowded street market in the Shaab neighborhood and blew himself up.
In recent weeks, snipers hidden in Shorja's bazaar have killed several people, merchants and the police say, and gunfights have erupted between militants and the Iraqi security forces in the area.
During their visit on Sunday, the Americans were buttonholed by merchants and customers who wanted to talk about how unsafe they felt and the urgent need for more security in the markets and throughout the city, witnesses said.
"They asked about our conditions, and we told them the situation was bad," said Aboud Sharif Kadhoury, 63, who peddles prayer rugs at a sidewalk stand. He said he sold a small prayer rug worth less than $1 to a member of the Congressional delegation. (The official paid $20 and told Mr. Kadhoury to keep the change, the vendor said.)
Mr. Kadhoury said he lost more than $2,000 worth of merchandise in the triple bombing in February. "I was hit in the head and back with shrapnel," he recalled.
Ali Youssef, 39, who sells glassware from a sidewalk stand down the block from Mr. Kadhoury, recalled: "Everybody complained to them. We told them we were harmed."
He and other merchants used to keep their shops open until dusk, but with the dropoff in customers as a result of the attacks, and a nightly curfew, most shop owners close their businesses in the early afternoon.
"This area here is very dangerous," continued Mr. Youssef, who lost his shop in the February attack. "They cannot secure it."
But those conversations were not reflected in the congressmen's comments at the news conference on Sunday.
Instead, the politicians spoke of strolling through the marketplace, haggling with merchants and drinking tea. "The most deeply moving thing for me was to mix and mingle unfettered," Mr. Pence said.
Mr. McCain was asked about a comment he made on a radio program in which he said that he could walk freely through certain areas of Baghdad.
"I just came from one," he replied sharply. "Things are better and there are encouraging signs."
He added, "Never have I been able to go out into the city as I was today."
Told about Mr. McCain's assessment of the market, Abu Samer, a kitchenware and clothing wholesaler, scoffed: "He is just using this visit for publicity. He is just using it for himself. They'll just take a photo of him at our market and they will just show it in the United States. He will win in America and we will have nothing."
A Senate spokeswoman for Mr. McCain said he left Iraq on Monday and was unavailable for comment because he was traveling.
Several merchants said Monday that the Americans' visit might have only made the market a more inviting target for insurgents.
"Every time the government announces anything - that the electricity is good or the water supply is good - the insurgents come to attack it immediately," said Abu Samer, 49, who would give only his nickname out of concern for his safety.
But even though he was fearful of a revenge attack, he said, he could not afford to stay away from the market. This was his livelihood. "We can never anticipate when they will attack," he said, his voice heavy with gloomy resignation. "This is not a new worry."
Ahmad Fadam and Wisam A. Habeeb contributed reporting.