Life blooms on the side streets of Baghdad

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The main roads and markets of Baghdad terrify residents. Car bombs are hidden amid the traffic of congested streets. Suicide bombers wearing explosive vests lurk in crowds shopping for groceries.

But life hasn't stopped. It's receded into Baghdad's side streets, where neighborhoods are becoming self-sufficient enclaves in which Sunni and Shiite Muslim residents can shop among their own without fear of retribution.

It's one more sign that the capital's division into sectarian pockets won't be undone soon.

Retailers report that they no longer sell some products because the suppliers belong to the rival religious group. Truckers have set up an exchange area outside Baghdad where goods are divvied up to retailers based on their sects. Stores in the historic Shorja market, long considered Iraq's most important, take orders by phone for delivery because customers are afraid to come and inspect the goods in person.

The result has been a new pattern of life for many as they search for ways to stay in their Sunni or Shiite neighborhoods.

Off busy Palestine Street in east Baghdad near the Sadr City neighborhood, Ali Jalil and his older brother, Salam, converted their garden into a mini-mart about a year ago in their mostly Shiite neighborhood.

Ali was tired of driving a taxi, picking up suspicious strangers and maneuvering through Baghdad's dangerous streets.

"It's like we're looking for bombs," he joked.

So he and Salam got rid of the roses, the garden swing and the citrus plants that grew at the edges of the garden, heavy with oranges and lemons, and built a two-room store. Burlap bags of nuts line the walls. Colorful cans and jars of food, toiletries and air fresheners are stacked on the shelves. They called the store "The Nile" because they wanted a name that wasn't sectarian; they still have some Sunni and Christian clients.

"The neighbors can't go to the main street," Ali said. "There is no security, so the people come to us, and we need something to live on."

Three months ago, Saad Ahmed, a Shiite, gave up his shop near the mostly Sunni neighborhood of Saidiya on the main road leading to the area known as the Sunni triangle, south of the capital. From his car he'd watched Sunni gunmen pull two of his Shiite friends from their vehicles and shoot them. He fled.

"I was shocked, and I left without hesitation," he said.

Now he has a small fruit and vegetable stand on the side streets of his Shiite neighborhood in New Baghdad. He gets his goods from a Shiite vendor on the outskirts of Sadr City and from poor farmers who no longer can sell their goods in Sunni neighborhoods west of the Tigris River.

"My income is less, but I have my life," he said.

Yarmouk, in west Baghdad, once was completely residential, an upscale neighborhood where well-off merchants and professionals lived. Now the streets of the Sunni neighborhood bloom with shops. In the past few months three mini-marts, a clothes shop, a barbershop, two Internet cafes and a computer shop have opened in what were once residents' gardens.

Young men are working as mechanics from their garages. A woman opened a beauty salon in her home. A bakery is under construction.

One store owner said he tried to stock his shelves but couldn't get certain products. When a customer asked for a long lighter for her gas stove, he apologized. He no longer stocked them; they came from a Shiite vendor.

Change also has come in the death of traditional shopping hubs.

In the past, upper-class Iraqis walked down the streets of the upscale Mansour district to shop for fashionable clothing, furniture and overpriced imported products. But many of the stores locked their doors and shuttered their windows after kidnappings and killings became commonplace. Sunni insurgents and criminals looking for rich victims are to blame.

In Shorja, Baghdad's main market, Iraqis once came from distant provinces for sweets, toys and the aromatic spices used in meat dishes. That was before three car bombs ripped through the marketplace, two of them since February.

Now the once-bustling market near the restive Sunni neighborhood of Fadhil is ringed with concrete blast walls to protect it from more devastating bombs. Still, shoppers are staying away in droves.

Mohammed Abu Ali, 38, a Shiite who's worked at the market since he was 7, said business at his nut and confectionary shop was just 5 percent of what it used to be.

Clients who want to buy wholesale, he said, call in their orders and ask for delivery.

"Only the brave and bold come to Shorja," he said.

On the highway just outside Ghazaliyah in west Baghdad, truckers who import products from neighboring countries have set up an exchange point where they meet drivers from markets in Baghdad and elsewhere. The truckers divvy up their products, part of them to Sunni drivers ferrying the goods to Sunni neighborhoods and provinces, and part to Shiite drivers transporting the products to Shiite neighborhoods and provinces.

For shoppers, the changes mean safety. They also mean a lesser world than Baghdad's sprawl once provided, when Shiites and Sunnis thought nothing of shopping in each other's neighborhoods.

Nasir Ismael no longer ventures outside his Sunni neighborhood, Adhamiya, for errands.

"Our world is becoming smaller and smaller," he said.


(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Jenan Hussein, Hussein Kadhim and Sahar Issa contributed to this report.)


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


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