Security in Sadr City Threatens Commercial Hub After two months of fierce fighting, U.S. and Iraqi forces have imposed relative calm on Baghdad's poor Sadr City neighborhood. But the battle brought devastation — and a barrier wall — to the Jamiila wholesale market, the economic heart of the area.
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Security in Sadr City Threatens Commercial Hub

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Security in Sadr City Threatens Commercial Hub

Security in Sadr City Threatens Commercial Hub

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To Iraq now and a vast Baghdad slum of Sadr City. For more than two weeks, the Iraqi army has been patrolling the streets there and enforcing a fragile peace. Sadr City had been under the control of Shiite militias since the start of the Iraq War. Fighting destroyed much of the city's wholesale market, the biggest in all of Iraq, and merchants are now hoping for two things: money for their losses and access to a three-mile-long barrier that was put up to protect them.

NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Baghdad.

COREY FLINTOFF: Sadiq Saleem stands next to a stinking pile of ash and muck, watching his workers clear debris from the shell of his electrical parts store. The store is at one end of a street of burned and blasted buildings, once a prime location for business.

Mr. SADIQ SALEEM: (Through translator) The fire destroyed about 200 stores and 20 factories. It put more than 5,000 people out of work, and that's more than 300 families without money to feed themselves.

FLINTOFF: This place is called Jamiila Market. The name means beautiful. The devastation came from all sides - roadside bombs set by the militia fighters, air strikes and artillery unleashed by the American and Iraqi militaries. Sadiq said that as soon as things began to calm down more than a month ago, he filed claims for compensation from both the Iraqi and American authorities, but so far there's been no result.

Mr. SALEEM: (Through translator) They've been making statements that they have $1,000,000 worth of aid for Sadr City. But so far there's nothing on the ground, just promises.

FLINTOFF: Sadiq was a wholesaler of electrical surge protectors, a necessity in this country where electric power is uncertain and surges can destroy TV sets and appliances. He says he sold up to 700 a day, not just to merchants from Sadr City but from all over Baghdad. The U.S. military says that so far it has received claims for compensation from more than 550 people. But compensation isn't Sadiq's only problem. His former shop now looks out at a 12-foot high blast wall that encircles Jamiila Market. The U.S. Army built it from concrete segments like gigantic jersey barriers to prevent militia fighters from filtering into the market.

Ehsan Mazher Lafta, another wholesaler, complains that the wall has only two entrances and it can take up to four hours for cars and trucks to get through the Iraqi Army checkpoints.

Mr. EHSAN MAZHER LAFTA (Wholesaler): (Through translator) I want to rebuild my store. This wall will make it difficult to bring in construction materials, so I'll have to pay twice as much to bring them in.

FLINTOFF: Ehsan's store is clogged with rubble and a foul-smelling mess of burned and rotting vegetables. Workers have hardly begun to clean it up.

Mr. LAFTA: (Through translator) Even if I rebuilt and bring in new goods, who will come to buy them? It will take them longer to get here and cost them more. So they'll take their business somewhere else. This wall has destroyed us.

FLINTOFF: A joint U.S. and Iraqi Army foot patrol passes by, supported by armored vehicles. First Lieutenant Devlin Winklestein(ph) is with Charlie Company of One Six Infantry Brigade. He says the military understands that while the wall protects people inside Jamiila Market, it also makes it hard for goods and customers to reach them.

Lieutenant DEVLIN WINKLESTEIN (U.S. Army): While we recognize that's an issue, we're trying to strike a balance between security and then letting the people flow in and out. Right now it's just a focus on security, but we plan on opening up checkpoints in the wall soon.

FLINTOFF: An Iraqi lieutenant who is patrolling with Winklestein says that in the coming days the plan calls for opening two gates in the wall for vehicles and two more for pedestrians, with army checkpoints at each gate. Both officers say that on balance they get far more praise than complaints from residents who say they're grateful for the increased security. For now there is at least one clandestine way to get through the wall. There are two holes possibly from tank rounds blasted into the base of the barrier and local children have found them.

Muntathar Ibrahim claims he is 18, but he's small enough to wriggle through one of the holes. He says he was desperate to get into the market to collect empty soda cans to sell as scrap metal.

Mr. MUNTATHAR IBRAHIM: (Through translator) I just kept walking and I found this hole so I can get into Jamiila because the rest of it is all closed.

FLINTOFF: For now, that will have to do.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Baghdad.

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