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Iraqi flag is top seller at Gaza Strip flag shop

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip—Behind the counter of his flag shop, Tariq Abu Dayyah profits from the fickle heart of the Palestinian people.

Before President Clinton visited four years ago, Abu Dayyah sold thousands of the U.S. flags that lined the road with red, white and blue from Rafah Airport to this crowded coastal strip's central city. When French President Jacques Chirac came, Abu Dayyah's family business sewed and sold an unprecedented 10,000 French flags.

So, as Palestinians complain that Washington is ignoring their case to wage war on Saddam Hussein, about 5,000 Iraqi flags have flown off the shelves here in just two weeks, ranging from a $1 hand-waving model to full-blown flag-pole versions for $10.

"We kept working all night; we didn't sleep at all," Abu Dayyah, 23, said of a recent rush order for an Iraq-Palestinian solidarity rally.

A flag may sound like a frivolous economic indicator. But it can be as emotional a symbol here as it is in the United States, where people still struggle over the question of whether flag-burning should be protected free speech.

Until Israel made a peace treaty with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 1993, Israeli forces strictly forbade Palestinians from flying their flag here and sometimes shot people for waving them, arguing that it was incitement. When Saddam sought Arab support in the last Persian Gulf War, he decreed that the phrase "Allahu Akbar"—"God is great," the Islamic rallying call—be added to the Iraqi flag.

Now it's Abu Dayyah's best seller.

"Sure, it's good business for me. But I want the war in Iraq to stop," said Abu Dayyah, whose family converted a corner grocery to a Palestine Liberation Organization flag business in 1994.

Later, they began sewing and selling U.S. and other foreign flags, he said, for diplomats based in Tel Aviv, Israel, who were drawn to Gaza's bargain-basement prices. Even today, he said, some Palestinians come in to buy the Stars and Stripes, a commodity he refuses to sell, but keeps off the shelves, in storage.

"They want to burn them," he said, explaining that he won't sell them because, in his business, he has befriended U.S. diplomats and knows that flag-burning "hurts American feelings."

Always entrepreneurial, Abu Dayyah is eyeing what the next flag trend will be.

He heard some sharp Bush administration words against two regimes that are adjacent to Iraq and wonders whether the flags of those countries will be his next big sellers.

"When they finish with Iraq and Afghanistan," he said of U.S. troops, "maybe they'll go to Iran or Syria."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.