Iraqi merchants incredulous over U.S. lawmakers' remarks

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A day after members of an U.S. congressional delegation led by Sen. 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?" said Ali Jassim Faiyad, the owner of an appliance shop in the market. "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 U.S. 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 rooftops. The congressmen wore bulletproof vests throughout their hourlong visit.

"They paralyzed the market when they came," Faiyad said yesterday in his shop. "This was only for the media."

He added, "This will not change anything."

At a news conference after their outing, McCain, an Arizona Republican, and his three congressional colleagues described Shorja as a safe, bustling place full of hopeful and welcoming Iraqis - "like an outdoor market in Indiana in the summertime," said Rep. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican and 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 alleys, has been bombed at least a half-dozen times since last summer.

At least 61 people were killed and many wounded in an attack Feb. 12 involving two car bombs and a roadside bomb.

A Senate spokeswoman said McCain left Iraq yesterday and was unavailable for comment because he was traveling.

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