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IRAQ: First violence, now inflation

April 23, 2008 | 10:33 am

Souq

By Usama Redha in Baghdad

When I feel bad or uneasy, the only thing that relaxes me is to go shopping in my neighborhood bazaar.

The busiest time is about 5 p.m. Lots of people come to buy groceries, glasses of fruit juice and snacks to enjoy as the heat of the day begins to ebb. But the last time I went, the bazaar wasn't nearly as crowded as it should have been. The vendors had piled up their fruit and vegetables in neat rows and were polishing them to make them shine. But few people were buying.

I always look around first to see who has the best stuff. But this time I was stunned by the prices, which are supposed to be cheap this time of the year. Most fruits and vegetables had gone up 30% or 40%. So my search was for the cheapest price, not the best quality.

The tomatoes were the first thing to attract my attention, because they are the main ingredient in Iraqi stews and salads. A man carrying a baby girl asked a vendor how much they cost. More than $2 a kilogram, came the answer. That's triple what they used to be, a disaster for poor families.

"What? A tomato is higher than an apple?" the man asked, horrified.

Another vendor suggested: "You can use the red apples to make your soup instead of tomatoes."

Everybody laughed.

I bought a kilo of them. While the vendor was packing my tomatoes into a black plastic bag, I asked him if they were from Iraq.

"What? Iraqi tomatoes?" he said. "They have gone with the dead."

I asked him what he meant. He explained that he used to get tomatoes from southern Iraq, but because of the fighting there between Shiite Muslim militiamen and the U.S. and Iraqi security forces, it is impossible to get them anymore. The only ones you can find in the capital now are from Syria and Jordan, he said.

Vendors purchase other items, like rice and sugar, from a wholesale market in the Baghdad militia stronghold known as Sadr City. But the market has been hit by rockets and set on fire repeatedly in the ongoing fighting.

"We stopped going there," the vendor said.

When I had bought what I needed, my grocery bill was 40% higher than usual.

We are used to temporary price hikes during curfews, for example. But this time it seems the very heart of the food market in Baghdad has been damaged.

And according to one grocer, Mohammed Majeed, "There will be more increases in the coming days when food stores start to run out."

Photo: A vendor weighs up a purchase at a Baghdad street market. Credit: Usama Redha / Los Angeles Times.

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