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Iraqis ply goods to Americans, in secret

An Iraqi market set up  at a U.S.  military base in Baghdad gives Iraqis a chance to sell their wares in a safe environment to thousands of  coalition troops.  NBC News' Adrienne Mong reports on the unusual enterprise.
An Iraqi- style bazaar at Camp Victory, a U.S. military base in Baghdad, sells textiles and clothing to the thousands of coalition troops.
An Iraqi- style bazaar at Camp Victory, a U.S. military base in Baghdad, sells textiles and clothing to the thousands of coalition troops.Adrienne Mong / NBC News
/ Source: NBC News

Six days a week, Douriad leaves his Baghdad home at 4 in the morning to get to work at Camp Victory, a U.S. military base in the western half of the Iraqi capital. He doesn’t live far from the base, and his work doesn’t begin until 10 in the morning. But getting up in the dark so that his neighbors won’t see him commute to work, is what it takes for him to earn a livelihood.

“When I work here, no one knows,” said Douriad, an energetic young man with an eager-to-please demeanor. “Just my wife and myself. Because if anyone knows, then I will be killed.”

Douriad isn’t a soldier or a policeman, among the most dangerous professions in Iraq. 

He’s a vendor at an Iraqi bazaar at Camp Victory, selling textiles — hand-woven tapestries, machine-made blankets and clothing — to the thousands of coalition, mostly American, troops based in the area.

But like the other 70 or so Iraqis who ply everything from electronics to perfume to handmade glasswork at the bazaar, Douriad knows that dealing with coalition troops is hazardous. 

“Anything that identifies an Iraqi working with an American always puts that person at risk,” said Jim Dunaway, a former Air Force sergeant who helped develop the bazaar for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, a Department of Defense organization responsible for supplying the retail and fast food operations during Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom.

Civilians have borne the brunt of the fighting in Iraq, especially those who are seen to be “collaborating” or “cooperating” with the coalition. Although many of the vendors at the Camp Victory bazaar were willing to be interviewed, they did not want to be identified by their full names or to have their faces shown in accompanying photographs.

Worth the risk
The risks, however, seem worth taking as the ongoing violence takes its toll on the country.  Unemployment is reported to be upwards of 60 percent. And although the shops in downtown Baghdad are overflowing with goods, business can be uneven or, as in the case for artisans, nonexistent.

“The vendors that sell arts, different kinds of arts, they're doing good business [at Camp Victory] because downtown no one is interested in arts," said Mohamed, an Iraqi contractor who did not want his family name to be published. "There are a lot more important things that a person has to be interested with.”

The tall, lanky Iraqi has been instrumental in setting up this bazaar as well as others on U.S. military camps around the country.

The new large building that now houses the 30 stalls are the result of Mohamed’s work. Until last month, the vendors operated out of tents. But six months ago Mohamed put to use his contracting skills to get the building project off the ground. The facility cost $150,000 and took six months from start to finish.

Mohamed said he regularly fields applications from prospective vendors. But given the security constraints and the limited space at the Camp Victory bazaar, he has strict criteria for evaluating applicants. The vendor “needs to bring an idea that is unique,” he said. “Something that we don’t have [or] that we don’t serve here.”

Once Mohamed has approved the applicant, his name and personal details are passed on to the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which employs someone to vet the information. If the applicant passes the security check, he’s allotted a space in the bazaar and is only charged a fee if he’s able to sell his goods.

Business is brisk
On a recent day, it looked like everyone was doing a brisk business.  A large crowd stood over an Iraqi man holding up old Iraqi currency. 

“This is from before 1991, before the embargo. Saddam [Hussein] made a lot of money like this currency, caused inflation in Iraq,” said the trader. While he addressed a row of bemused looking Marines, his sales pitch turned briefly into a sermon: “Coalition forces cannot do like this, print 10,000, 25,000, 5,000. It will cause inflation in Iraq.”

In another corner of the hall, a snowy haired Iraqi man darted from a pile of carpets beside him to a glass counter, over which he avidly discussed prices with an American private. His assistants were rolling up more carpets and packing them in large, sturdy plastic sleeves. By the end of the day, he had sold more than 30.

The carpet vendor, whose name is Mohamed, opened his stall at Camp Victory 19 months ago. Like many of the others, he still keeps his original shop — near Al Mustansiriyah University, across town and north of the Tigris — where he has been selling Iraqi and Persian carpets for 35 years.

Security top priority for Iraqis and troops
“We’re coming here because of the security,” said Mohamed. “Here, it’s very, very good … In Baghdad, there’s no security.”

Security is the main issue, for the Iraqis and for the coalition troops. “We have lost vendors,” said Dunaway. “We have had people killed, and it's always something that affects all of us. …. You have to take huge precautions to avoid that.”

The Army and Air Force Exchange Service also take precautions to minimize threats to the troops. The vendors gather outside the base checkpoint every morning except Friday, their day off. 

Once they’re through security, they board a bus that drives them to the bazaar, usually in time to open up by 10 o’clock. The bazaar closes early, at 4 in the afternoon, to give the tradesmen enough time to get home before nightfall. Throughout the entire time they’re on the base, they’re escorted and watched by armed guards.

The security constraints mean that proportionately few jobs available on bases like Camp Victory go to Iraqis. Instead, much of the contract labor is composed of what the Army and Air Force Exchange Service calls “third-country nationals,” like Filipinos, Sri Lankans or Indians brought in by subcontractors and who, most notably, don’t require armed escorts. 

Not only does the labor situation feed into Iraqi resentment toward the U.S. military, it also limits normal interaction between Iraqis and Americans.

Forum for cultural exchange
But at the bazaar, there are scenes not seen on the streets of Baghdad since early last year. Iraqis and American soldiers chat animatedly in simple English and the occasional broken Arabic phrase. Some even greet one another like old friends before getting down to the business of buying and selling.

“The customers are very nice,” said Douriad, the textiles vendor. “They say ‘hi.’ You know, it’s very difficult for the customer to say ‘hi’ for nothing!”

“They learn the language, they talk about their families, they talk about their religion. It goes both ways,” said Dunaway as his troops milled around. “My Arabic has improved. ... This has been a very, very good relationship.”

For some of the vendors, however, there’s an added bonus. “As Iraqis we have to do something,” said Mohamed, the bazaar organizer. “The Americans are coming from long distance to help us; we have to help ourselves.”