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Violence in Baghdad has taken a toll on small merchants

BAGHDAD, Iraq—First to go was the pastry shop next door. That was early last spring. Since then, Alaa al Janabi, 46, has watched as Baghdad's epidemic of violence drained the life from his street, one store at a time.

Not long ago, about a dozen shops lined the one-block stretch of road in southwest Baghdad's Saidia neighborhood. Now only Janabi's computer-game arcade and the barbershop one door down remain, and the barber sneaks in for only a couple of hours each day, at a time whispered like a password to longtime customers.

Along a nearby section of a bit more than a mile, where 140 shops once stood only 23 remain. So many merchants in the area have been killed—or fled in fear that they would be—that the result of staying seems obvious, especially for a Shiite Muslim in a neighborhood that's being methodically cleansed by Sunni Muslims, who dominate the area.

"I am here waiting to die," Janabi said.

The story of his street is emblematic of the collapse of society in Baghdad and is echoed across the city, where more stores are closed than open on most streets. Small shops where people used to get their daily needs—from vegetables to meat and bread, hardware and clothing—are an endangered species.

Like many Baghdad streets Janabi's has never had a name. Locals identify such streets by distinctive shops or other landmarks. This one had been known for the Al Batreeq ("The Penguin") ice cream shop, four doors down from Janabi's.

The ice cream shop closed in May before the peak of its season because the owner couldn't make enough to pay the rent. His customers saw no need to risk their lives seeking a luxury.

The bakery across the street closed about six months ago during a wave of violence against bakers, which some say was sectarian but others say was directed against those supplying the army.

The pastry shop, owned by Janabi's friend, Abu Alaa, a Sunni, closed for the same reason.

In kind of a macabre echo of shopping fads, the death squads have hunted by specialties.

They killed hairdressers for supposedly promoting female vanity. Then came the butchers, guilty, apparently, of cutting meat in an offensive way. Then women's clothing shops were targeted. The killers said that they, too, were agents of vanity.

Barbers also are in the crosshairs. Some say it's because they spread too much information while chatting with customers; others say it's because some Islamic extremists believe that it's wrong to shave your beard. That's why Janabi's neighbor keeps secretive hours.

In late 2004, they killed real estate agents because of rumors that they were helping Jews buy up property. The owners of the pastry shop and a store four doors down from Janabi's sold real estate until then. Abu Alaa switched to pastry only to have the bakers targeted. Now he sells fuel on the street.

The other real estate broker was replaced by a flooring shop that closed this summer.

On the other side of Janabi from the pastry shop was a cell phone store. The owner, Janabi's brother, closed because the store was successful enough that it made him a potential target for kidnapping and the wares were a sure draw for criminal gangs.

The next store down was the flooring shop, then the barber, the ice cream shop and finally a business that sold drinks and snacks, owned by Janabi's nephew. He, too, was afraid to stay open, and Janabi now sells the drinks that used to be sold there.

Across the street was the bakery and a small arcade of men's shops.

The arcade shut down after the owner received a threatening flier. It probably was a legitimate threat, but unscrupulous businessmen have taken advantage of the chaos to scare people into selling at low prices.

Janabi figures his own store is worth only 25 percent of its value before the war, one more reason he can't afford to leave.

He misses the old bustle of the street and the feeling of community among the shopkeepers along the block. On his side of the street, as in Baghdad itself, the shopkeepers were mixed, some Sunni, some Shiite.

"Before the war all the shops were opened and people used to fill the place and I used to have neighbors," he recalled. "I used to ask them, especially Abu Alaa, to watch my shop if I had to leave. Now I can't because I have no neighbors."

"I miss the people in the streets. I miss people around giving life to the place ... it is deserted now and this is not nice," he said.

His closest neighbor now is a man named Emad, whose housewares store is around the corner. Two weeks ago, four shops that neighbored Emad's were torched. It's not clear why.

Nor is it clear why the pharmacist next to the burned stores was killed in his shop.

"We never know why any of these incidents happen," Emad said. "The burned shops are owned by Sunnis and Shiites."

Emad is fatalistic: "Why I am still open? I don't have another place to go to, as simple as that. It has become normal to hear explosions or that someone has been killed. I have the belief that I can't do anything to avoid it."

Janabi, who lost most of his eyesight in 1987 when he was wounded during the Iran-Iraq war, said he, too, had little choice but to keep his business open, even if the overhead costs eventually included his life.

"What can I do? I have five children to raise and the rent of the house. Besides, I am crippled. There's nothing else that I can do," he said. "I'm going to die one day no matter what, so it's not useful to run away from it."

In Baghdad, the loss of neighborhood stores is more than an inconvenience. With electricity only a sometime thing, refrigeration is impossible, so many people must buy food daily. Traveling even a few extra blocks can mean running a gantlet of death squads, illegal sectarian checkpoints, common bandits, kidnappers and random bombs. Showing up in a strange neighborhood, even just to buy tomatoes, can draw the wrong kind of attention.

Iraqi and U.S. officials here are painfully aware of the problem. Restoring normalcy to troubled neighborhoods is a goal of their current district-by-district military sweep through Baghdad.

It's unclear yet whether it's working; it hasn't reached Saidia yet.

It's hard to say how much longer Janabi and the clandestine barber can hold out.

One recent afternoon, the only life on the block was in the dark computer room of Janabi's shop. A handful of teenage boys, all Sunnis, filed in with their schoolbooks to squeeze in a couple of hours of online gaming before going home to break their Ramadan fasts, and then—because of the nighttime curfew—"sit home like chickens until morning," one said.

They were playing a popular game called Counter-strike. In cyberspace, the players are issued guns and divide into two teams: one of terrorists, the other an anti-terrorist squad. There are bombs, kidnappings and assassinations.

"Why did you kill me?" one 17-year-old shouted at a friend sitting at an adjacent computer. The answering laugh carried a mean edge.

"I am his partner," said the puzzled victim, who like the others didn't want his name used.

Five minutes later, a bomb detonated on the street outside.

No one was killed, this time at least.


(Dulaimy is a special correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers.)

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