BAGHDAD, Iraq — In the alleyways and streets near the main downtown Baghdad bus terminal, street merchants shouted loudly over the traffic and pedestrians. “Good quality products! Cheap prices! Come over and take a look!”
Iraqis lined up three-deep in order to glance at the merchandise. For their efforts they saw stacks of magazines, lotions, books, food, and shampoos — some new, some second hand — all American.
Ali Warrar, 35, took off his glasses and calmly said, “Not a dinar less than 750 (50 cents).”
His customer kept turning the military MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) packet over and over.
He finally offered Warrar 500 dinars.
Warrar put the bills in his pocket and started to straighten up his goods. His commodities came from Camp Victory, a military base near the Baghdad Airport. They came from the back of a truck — a garbage truck.
Even as the level of violence is ratched up ahead of this month's election, Iraqis continue with their hardscrabble daily lives. For many, the coalition forces -- directly and indirectly -- provide a way of life.
Iraqi contractors, for example, remove all the garbage from U.S. military bases in Baghdad. The contractors sift through the refuge and pick out items that are new, nearly unused, or second hand.
In a warehouse district near Abu Ghraib prison, merchants, like Warrar, buy these items to resell them on the streets.
After years of settling for poor-quality products, the buying public at first were enticed by the American products and then won over by the cheap prices. Many customers buy the products because after years of sanctions they finally can.
Warrar picked up a can of Del Monte pears and said, “This can I sell for about 200 dinars (14 cents). You will pay 2,000 dinars ($1.40) for the same can at Honey Market [an upscale Baghdad supermarket]. Crest toothpaste 500 dinars for you!” he laughed. “Honey Market, 2000.”
Since he started selling these American products Warrar has been earning more money than ever.
Learning merchandise as they go
At the entrance to the bus terminal Haider Abbas’ lotions and magazines were scattered on a piece of plastic tarpaulin. Most of his customers were women who were looking for foreign skin lotions.
Pointing to a few bottles, he said, “These items I know. Since I cannot read English these others I have no idea what they are for!”
The sun reflected off his smooth hands as he showed off his lotions, especially the ones he uses regularly.
All of his lotion bottles were used; some of them even half empty. “My customers are educated. They teach me about the lotions. This is the only way I learn about my merchandise,” Abbas explained.
Iraqi police officers come by every day to find out if Abbas has magazines about guns or motorcycles. Tailors request fashion magazines so they can learn about the latest designs.
Abbas goes through every magazine in search of any offending pictures — he wants to make sure that his wares do not any break any Islamic tenets.
“If I find anything that is haram [sinful] I will burn it right here,” Haider said.
Some of the merchants concentrate on selling food products. Ibrahim Raafat’s inventory included energy bars, popcorn, coffee, teabags, and canned foods.
“My wholesaler supplies certain items to the U.S. military and in return he gets all new goods.” Raafat declined to give further information on the details of those items. “I used to work as a policeman, but now I am compelled to take this job in order to support my family,” he said.
Back at Warrar’s stand, Haitham Aziz, a high school English teacher, was leafing through an August issue of Reader’s Digest. He asked Warrar how much it cost.
“It is nice to be able to find magazines such as this one,” said Aziz. “During Saddam’s time, even at the best book stores, such magazines were not readily available. Even when one surfaced, it would be five or six years old.”
After paying for the magazine, Aziz opened up his Samsonite briefcase to put the magazine in and said, “I do not understand why in an oil-rich county as ours we have to buy the garbage of the Americans.”
Babak Behnam is an NBC News producer on assignment in Baghdad. Ahmed Taha did additional reporting for this story.