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

Thieves Descend on Baghdad Bazaar

Shopkeepers increasingly have to share the narrow streets with drug dealers and gamblers.
By Mohammad Fawzi

In central Baghdad, just off bustling Jumhuriyyah Street and tucked in next to an old Abbasid dynasty mosque is the Ghazel market – a warren of winding streets lined with shops selling live birds, fish and animals.

On Fridays, when other markets are closed for the Muslim day of rest, Ghazel's narrow lanes are packed.

Shopkeepers exhibit chickens and rabbits stacked in cages, as well as dogs tied by chains. They offer fierce falcons, squawking parrots and huge pythons. Tropical fish dart about large, while monkeys swing from perch to perch.

Since the war, though, the shopkeepers increasingly find they have to share the market streets with drug dealers and gamblers who gather in front of their shops.

With people coming here from the far corners of Iraq to buy and sell animals, Ghazel also has become a central place to buy and sell drugs, as well as to gamble at dice or cards.

"This is not good," said Hamid Omran, a bird shop owner in Ghazel. "It has a bad effect on society and tarnishes the reputation of Iraq."

In Saddam Hussein's time, drug trafficking and gambling were prohibited and tightly controlled by security forces and police.

But in the free-wheeling lawlessness that prevails in Baghdad today, drug users, dealers and gamblers feel free to operate openly.

"We are the only ones who sell drugs," bragged Zaid Abdul Amir, a boss in the local drugs business. "We don't let anyone else practice this trade." Anyone who wants to sell in the market has to pay him off first.

The trade is mostly in pills: amphetamines, depressants and other pharmaceuticals which are easily hidden in pockets. Baghdadis say that drugs like opium and hashish are not sold in Ghazel, but are available elsewhere in the city.

One of the most popular drugs is mogadon, a powerful painkiller that Iraqi soldiers used regularly. Dealers also say artane, which has hallucinogenic effects, is popular, as are "white crosses," a mild amphetamine.

The police say they try to stop dealers but have had little impact on the new trade in drugs.

"We make continuous assaults on these traffickers," said officer Salah Jabber from the nearby Rasafa police station.

But shopkeepers on Jumhuriyyah Street are paid to tip off the dealers whenever the police are on their way.

Jabber says he has managed to arrest some people, but it hasn't made much of a dent in the trade.

Fights between dealers and users often break out, and together with frequent quarrels over gambling debts, this is making the market an increasingly dangerous place.

Ali Hussein, a dealer, told how he was once approached by a man who wanted pills but had no money to buy them. The man stabbed Hussein in the stomach and ran away – but didn’t get any drugs.

The other increasingly popular pastime in Ghazel market is street gambling, entertaining both amateurs and professionals.

A wooden table marked with squares and surrounded by a group of men is a sure sign that the dice game called "legaw", known as craps in the West, is under way. Forms of roulette are also played for money, as are various card games.

On any given Friday, the market is packed with winners and losers. Abu Hatem says he wins one day but loses everything the next.

Mohammad Khazal has just lost his car playing “legaw”. He threatens to kill the man he lost to if he does not give the keys back.

Omar is famous as a gambler and is usually high on artane. "I swallow these tablets so I won't feel my gambling losses," he said as he gulped down a handful of tablets.

He owes 500,000 Iraqi dinars (about 360 US dollars), but he talks his creditor into deferring payment until the following Friday, hoping he will win big in the meantime.

American soldiers sometime stroll through Ghazel market. The store-keepers hope they have come to make arrests. But they only come for sightseeing, or to buy exotic birds.

Mohammad Fawzi is an IWPR trainee.

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