Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Sunni Group Forces Boycott of Iranian Goods

Under threat of reprisals, shop owners in central Iraq are no longer selling Iranian products.
By Jasim al-Saba\'wi
Shopkeepers in the town of Hawije have pulled Iranian imports from their shelves after a militant group threatened to kill traders and burn down stores shops that failed to comply with a boycott.

The threat came from a previously unknown group called the High Command for the Mujahidin, and was reportedly issued in several majority Sunni Arab cities in central Iraq, including Baqubah, Tikrit, Samarra and Fallujah.

The group posted leaflets on the walls of mosques telling shopkeepers to boycott Iranian products from May 1 or suffer violent consequences.

The group accused Iran of fuelling sectarian conflict in Iraq and of supporting the US interventions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It also said Iran was exporting products that were past their sell-by date.

Hawije, 70 kilometres west of the northern city of Kirkuk, is a Sunni-majority town where fierce clashes erupt sporadically between militants and US troops, and roadside bombs target American convoys.

According to residents, the threat of reprisals has proved effective here, as in many other parts of central Iraq.

Ghazi al-Jumaili, a wholesale foodseller, said shopkeepers had responded "out of fear rather than persuasion".

A source in the Hawije police force who spoke on condition of anonymity said policemen were continually patrolling the markets. "But that hasn’t stopped businessmen getting rid of Iranian goods. The market is empty of them now," he said.

“The police can't perform miracles… Many people can't express their opposition [to the boycott], because that would be dangerous."

Iraq has had close ties with Iran's Shia government since the fall of Saddam Hussein's Sunni Arab-dominated regime in April 2003. As the Shias, believed to account for about 60 per cent of the total population, have assumed political power, many people in the country have come to suspect that Tehran is exerting a powerful influence on government policy.

Iraq’s economy is crumbling because of rising sectarian violence, and is increasingly reliant on foreign imports, most of which come from Iran and China.

Iraq's ambassador in Tehran, Mohammed Majid Abbas al-Sheikh, said in March that sales of Iranian goods are expected to rise from one billion to 1.5 billion US dollars this year, accounting for half of all Iraqi imports.

Hawije residents, particularly businessmen who complied with the Iranian boycott and lost money as a result, were reluctant to discuss the threats.

But in a town where some residents celebrated Saddam’s birthday on April 28, the boycott also had its supporters.

"This call came late in the day. Iran is the source of all trouble in Iraq," said Abu Walid, a 38-year-old former Iraqi army officer who did not want his full name to be used.

"I would support this boycott even if Iran were the only country supplying Iraq."

The economic impact of the boycott in Hawije is unclear. Abu Ahmad, 48-year-old owner of a shop selling household appliances, said he lost about one million dinars, or 680 dollars, because he sold his Iranian-made stock at well below cost to people from his own village, just to offload it.

But he insisted, "It was in the interests of the Sunni community, and I'm not angry."

Jumaili said that while some people in Hawije did support the boycott, if there really was such widespread animosity toward Iran, "people would have boycotted Iranian products ever since the Iran-Iraq war of the Eighties".

He said Syrian and Turkish products were widely available, so there had been no shortages.

Naji Ismail, an economics professor at Mosul University, criticised the boycott, which he said is not founded on Islamic principles and would just end up costing people more.

"The motive is nationalist and it promotes prejudice, which is one of the ailments now afflicting Iraqi society," he said.

Ismail said that when shopkeepers complied with the boycott, "this in turn encourages militants to impose their terms and conditions on the markets and on people. It reinforces their power and authority in these areas. It might not end here”.

A cleric who preaches at Friday prayers in a Hawije mosque said that according to Islamic law, a boycott is not allowed if the result will be detrimental to the interests of Muslims, especially where large sums of money are concerned.

“Issuing threats by means of flyers isn't permissible," added the cleric, who did not want to be named. "Doing so is like making a murder threat, and this is prohibited."

Jumaili said he does not expect Iranian products to reappear on sale in Hawije, not least because the Iraqi government is not in control of security in the area.

"If there isn't a strong government capable of protecting businessmen and people, the boycott could be indefinite," he said.

Jasim al-Saba'wi is an IWPR trainee journalist in Hawije.