Posted: 6/5/2010 3:03:06 PM EDT
June 4, 2010
U.S. Military's Castoffs Find A Market Among Iraqis
Bargain hunters seek out abandoned generators, trailers and latrines at yard sales and auctions across the country
By Leila Fadel
FALLUJAH, IRAQ –– The remnants of the U.S. occupation of Iraq are being sold to the highest bidders in yard sales across the country.
The outskirts of cities like Baghdad, Fallujah and Ramadi –– once bastions of the Sunni insurgency –– are now destinations for bargain hunters interested in items such as generators and trailers. As the U.S. military draws down to 50,000 troops by the end of the summer, the junk left behind is quickly becoming part of the Iraqi landscape.
Just outside Fallujah, Iraqi merchants Mohammed Issawi and Abu Saif sat recently on plastic chairs in the blistering sun. Broken generators, trailers, dumpsters and air conditioners graced the dirt lot behind them. Some of the items were emblazoned with the red, white and blue flag of the United States.
After all that the U.S. occupation has taken from Iraq, Issawi said, Iraqis deserve to get something back –– even if it's just a low price on a laptop. "These are our things," he said. "They took these things from us, and now we are selling them back. They occupied our country by force."
Families buy $1,000 trailers once fashioned into sleeping quarters for soldiers and Marines. Base latrines have become cheaper alternatives to traditional dwellings made of brick and concrete. Air-conditioner units and large generators that can stave off Iraq's blistering summers are sold at half-price.
Merchants say they come across the loot in different ways. Some was found, some was stolen and some was sold to them. Much of it, they say, was just given away.
At Ahmed Adnan's auction just outside Balad, north of Baghdad, the enterprising 20-something recently showed off his hodgepodge of merchandise. He sells blast walls to the provincial government in northern Iraq's Nineveh province, where explosions remain a threat. Merchants from Baghdad travel to his junkyard to supply their shops for cut-rate prices. Civilians search through the goods for little treasures like iPods and laptops.
Entire villages pitch in to buy large generators and water purifiers, which are then shared. Many Iraqis still lack reliable running water and electricity, which is especially scarce during the summer. Iraq's neglected infrastructure, already in poor shape when U.S.-led forces invaded in 2003, has been further devastated by the past seven years of war.
As Adnan dealt with customers on a recent day, a truck of Iraqi soldiers drove up with laptops and flat screens to sell to him. The goods were likely looted.
U.S. officials worry that much of the tens of millions of dollars worth of U.S. equipment being handed over to the Iraqi government is neglected or quickly stolen. Under federal law, U.S. agencies must show that no other division in the government needs equipment before it can be donated or left behind. American commanders in Iraq received a waiver from the regulations in 2005, when they started closing bases and donating equipment to the Iraqi government. At the time, the Pentagon set a cap of $2 million worth of equipment per base that could be earmarked for donation.
In recent years, commanders have sought and received more latitude, citing the importance of leaving the Iraqi armed forces with functional bases. The policy has sparked a debate at the Pentagon over whether it makes sense to leave so much behind, but officials say that in many cases, it would cost more to ship items out than to buy new ones elsewhere.
The new rules allow commanders to donate equipment worth up to $30 million at each base they hand over. Some of the items –– such as passenger vehicles and generators –– are being donated despite the fact that they are in demand in Afghanistan, where the U.S. is increasing its forces.
Religious authorities in Fallujah have condemned the sale of any goods that originate on U.S. bases, since the material was once used to support a military occupation. Most equipment on the bases was shipped in from outside Iraq, but many Iraqis believe it was stolen from them.
"These materials are questionable and include forbidden and ill-gotten things," said Abdullah Hussein al-Qobaissi, a senior cleric in Fallujah. "Their sources are unknown. Did they come with the occupiers? Did the occupiers steal them from Iraq? Everyone should stay away from them even if they are sold cheaply."
Fallujah was the scene of some of the most intense battles of the war, ones in which thousands of civilians died and countless homes were flattened. Now the situation has calmed, many of the U.S. bases are gone and what's left behind will soon be woven into the tapestry of the nation.
Rukaya Abdul Aziz, 32, recently held her youngest child inside her new home. Her past two houses were destroyed in U.S. attacks, she said. Two of her cousins and her brother-in-law were killed in the war, and she eagerly awaits the final departure of U.S. forces.
"We hope they leave today, not tomorrow," she said. "Our sons are gone because of them."
The only shelter she and her husband, Munir Ibrahim Ismail, could afford to replace their homes was a trailer once used as a latrine. They scrubbed it clean, took off the back and used concrete to build an extra room.
"We wanted something that wasn't American, but this was the biggest we could afford," she said. "We had no choice."
I remember speaking to some soldiers who said generators were stolen from them all the time.