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IRAQ: In Baghdad, it's business as (un)usual

February 17, 2008 |  7:59 pm

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It took four years to happen and four days to get the exhibits through the Green Zone's zipper-tight security and into place, but Baghdad's first-ever Business to Business Expo closed Sunday after a relatively seamless three-day run.

There were the usual contracting giants and telecommunications companies exhibiting wares to each other and to prospective customers, but their stalls paled in comparison to the likes of the state-run tobacco company, and the state-run fruit-juice and food company, whose messages were clear: Eat Iraqi! Smoke Iraqi! Drink Iraqi! Buy Iraqi!

Even the state-run paint company was there, urging people to use Iraqi paint. The cheap Iranian imports won't survive the rain, their sales reps warned.

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Iraq's state-run enterprises are finding it tough going in the  post-Saddam Hussein era. Gone are the days of closed markets and government support. Now, imports are flooding over the borders, duty-free, and Iraqis are lured by foreign packaging.

The State Company for Tobaccos and Cigarettes has come up with one possible solution: putting its Marbid cigarette brand into a box that bears a striking resemblance to an American brand.

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There are some things, though, that are never a tough sell in Iraq. Like $4,000, 18-inch-long flashlights that can take video and still pictures and have night-vision capabilities. The better to see insurgents with. The same company selling those also was showing its newest product: an $8,000 pocket-sized bomb-detector called Sniffex, which can also smell perfume.

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Security companies are the likely buyers for both products, said a sales representative as Sniffex's antenna zeroed in on a woman wearing Tea Rose.

The embassy of the Czech Republic was there, showing off what Czech companies have to offer. Chemical gas masks, for example, and tractors to ply Iraq's rich agricultural fields.

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Raad Ommar, who heads the Iraqi American Chamber of Commerce and Industry and who divides his time between Iraq and La Crescenta, Calif., first tried to organize the Baghdad Expo in 2004. A close call with a mortar shell, which landed near the convention site, forced him to call it off just 70 hours before showtime.

This time, there were no security breaches. Next time, Ommar is determined to hold the Expo somewhere other than the  Green Zone, where huge lines formed as exhibitors and guests waited to go through security.

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Ommar himself is no stranger to the headaches of doing business in Iraq, which he fled in 1969. Three years after his return in 2003, the businessman was abducted and held hostage for five days, until a ransom bought his freedom.

"Maybe I'm just the kind of guy who likes to gamble a bit," he said.

—Tina Susman in Baghdad

From top: Iraq's State Company for Tobaccos and Cigarettes super-sizes one of its brands; Sales reps for the National Company for Food show off Iraqi goodies; Iraqi cigarettes on display; A sales rep shows off a $4,000 flashlight/camera; A model demonstrates a Czech-made chemical mask; A toy tractor replicates the real thing, made in the Czech Republic. Credit: Tina Susman / Los Angeles Times

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