BAGHDAD — On an oil-stained street in the Iraqi capital's fortified Green Zone, armored police SUVs hobbled into the garage, their doors pocked with bullet holes, their hoods and chassis charred and shredded.
Each day about a dozen crippled cop cars pass through the steel gates of Fiafi Group auto repair, one of a half-dozen or so such garages here.
Despite the five-month American-led security crackdown, roadside bombs, insurgent attacks and even errant strafing from U.S. military helicopters keep the armored-car repair business booming in Baghdad.
Fiafi, which opened in 2004, employs about 90 workers, almost all Iraqis, with a few Filipino and Western European office hands. The company would hire more mechanics if it had more space, said one manager, who requested that his name not be used, citing security concerns.
The war in Iraq has created its own set of economic opportunities, from forged visas and food-ration cards to arms smuggling and militia-run neighborhood power stations. In a country where unemployment hovers around 60 percent, according to the Iraqi Planning Ministry, the mechanically inclined are finding legitimate jobs. A decent armored-car mechanic easily can earn $12,000 a year, enough to support a family of four.
Fiafi, based in Baghdad, has a contract with the Iraqi Ministry of Interior to repair Iraqi police vehicles.
"The typical damage is to the suspension, steering, engine, tires, electrical wiring," the manager said. "Really, the whole vehicle. And normal wear and tear is multiplied due to the conditions that we're in."
Although no exact number of the armored cars operating in the Green Zone exists, it's easily several hundred, according to informal tallies. Likewise, the precise number of armored-car repair shops is unavailable. Technically, the Interior Ministry regulates all businesses in the 3.5-square-mile fortress. No government official would comment for this story.
Official numbers probably would be inaccurate anyway. On Baghdad's anarchic streets, many cars have hand-painted, homemade license plates. Some have no plates at all.
However, mechanics, vendors and contractors all agree: The number of armored cars in the Green Zone is at an all-time high, as is the number of repair shops.
At STG, an armored-car repair business not far from Fiafi, a line of sun-faded Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs and Toyota Land Cruisers jammed the small gravel lot.
Business is up about 40 percent from the previous year, said Saamr, STG's local manager, who didn't want his last name printed because of security concerns. He said the business was "foreign owned" but provided no more details.
"Business is better because there are more attacks, more accidents," he said, as a mechanic in a red jumpsuit tinkered under the hood of a Mercedes.
Repair jobs cost $100 to $30,000, depending on the extent of the damage and the labor involved.
Most of the repairs for armored vehicles in the Green Zone are a result of "chop-shop" assembly, in which armor is slapped onto the insides of doors, roofs or undercarriages. The added weight quickly cripples standard suspensions, brakes and other mechanical parts.
"Added-on armor covers the wires" that run through the car," Saamr said. "And it makes it hard to get to stuff."
Slapped-on metal causes problems even for rugged military vehicles. The doors on "up-armored" Humvees sometimes won't open from the inside, as the extra weight from steel plating makes them stick.
The armored vehicles of choice in the Green Zone are Land Cruisers and Chevrolet Suburbans, said David Griffin, contract administrator for Worldwide Armor Services, based in San Angelo, Texas.
"The Suburban has the ability to handle the additional weight," he said. "And Land Cruisers, well, they're just hardy."
Newer advances in composites and antiballistic ceramics help drop the added weight by some 600 pounds, he said. An armored Land Cruiser costs about $100,000, compared with about $56,000 for a standard model. An armored Suburban costs about $110,000, compared with about $40,000 for a conventional version.
Worldwide Armor sells armored vehicles across the globe, but it's doing its biggest business in Iraq.
"There's a lot of opportunity for sales out there," Griffin said. "It's sad, I guess. But these are the facts."
(Drummond reports for The Charlotte Observer.)
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN AN ARMORED CAR
Levels of nonmilitary armor protection typically are rated on a scale from two to six, with six being the best. The tradeoff is agility and speed. Testudo Security Consultants of Amman, Jordan, recommends level six protection in Iraq, "where the likelihood of attack is extremely high." But even the most robust vehicles are vulnerable to armor-piercing roadside bombs.
Testudo recommends that armored-car vendors replace standard fittings with heavy-duty:
— Door hinges.
— Cooling and air-conditioning systems, particularly in the Middle East.
— Reinforced chassis.
— Resealing gas tanks.
— "Run-flat" tires.
The vehicle itself should look like a standard model, "to avoid drawing attention."