Counting the Cost of Baghdad Market Blaze

Local economy likely to suffer after thousands of businesses go up in smoke.

Counting the Cost of Baghdad Market Blaze

Local economy likely to suffer after thousands of businesses go up in smoke.

Friday, 18 November, 2005

Thousands of Iraqi shop owners and workers have been left reeling by a blaze that destroyed the city’s central market, causing more than one billion US dollars worth of damage.

The al-Shorja market fire broke out in the early hours of April 15, and while nobody was killed, six firefighters were injured. Pockets of flames and smouldering debris could still be seen two days later, and the majority of its shops remained closed on April 19.

The most damaged areas contain two buildings, the al-Kadisiya and al-Caregizi, which sell everything from spices to electronic equipment. “I’ve lost what I have built up during the past 30 years,” cosmetics shop owner Zuher Mutlak told IWPR.

The cause of the fire that ravaged the two square kilometre site has yet to be determined, although senior firemen suspect it started with an electric spark.

But some shop owners and local residents believe the blaze was started deliberately – perhaps as an act of revenge by racketeers demanding protection money.

IWPR understands that many shop owners in the market recently refused to give into such demands. One major in the al-Russafa district civil defence force, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IWPR, “I cannot say completely that [the fire] was not sabotage.”

Iraqi national guard captain Abdul Hassan said that after the fire had been brought under control, police arrested 19 people who had attempted to loot the burned and damaged shops. An attempt was also made to break into the nearby Central Bank of Iraq, but this was thwarted by security forces.

However, not all residents were pleased with how the law enforcement bodies handled the crisis. Shop owner Samy Ibrahim alleged that some police officers had asked for a hundred dollars from merchants in exchange for saving their business from the blaze.

Baghdad residents are now worried about the economic impact of the fire, as thousands of people have now lost their businesses and jobs. It is estimated to have caused more than one billion dollars worth of damage.

Al-Shorja is one of the oldest and most popular markets in Iraq, and there is a saying that “if you didn’t go to al-Shorja, you didn’t go to Baghdad”. The area has been closed only once before, when King Ghazi was buried in 1939.

Economist Dr Hana Hassan said, “The negative effects cannot be measured because the market employs thousands of workers who have now lost their jobs - and if we measured the number of families that affects, it will be extensive.

“The suspension of business operations will also hurt, as that pumps millions of dollars into the vein of Iraq’s economy.”

The impact of the April 15 fire was discussed by several religious leaders during that day’s prayers in Baghdad, and the site was also visited by outgoing prime minister Ayad Allawi.

Parliament has since ruled that either the defence or interior ministries should formally ask the finance ministry to consider granting compensation to those affected.

Duraed Salman is an IWPR trainee in Baghdad.

Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
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