Baghdad sees significant increase in street venders

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Dora Market in southeast Baghdad is a sign of both how well the Baghdad security plan has succeeded in calming some of the capital’s violence and how far it still has to go.

“I came down here the day after I took command,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, said Saturday as he stood between a stand selling slippers and a street vendor selling colorful women’s gowns. “This place was shut up, like a war zone.”

In December, only three vendors were operating in the market, which had been repeatedly targeted by bombers. On Saturday, 141 vendors were selling goods, and blast walls blocked the market’s main street at either end, walling it off from car bombs, and giving the small crowd of shoppers some sense of security.

Still, it was hardly the way it used to be when 650 merchants operated in Dora. The shoppers were few, and despite the blast walls, everyone remained wary of bombers on foot whose explosive vests can be every bit as devastating as a car bomb. One such bomber hit a protected marketplace in Shaab in northern Baghdad on Thursday, killing at least 60.

Sunni Muslim insurgents and gunmen from al-Qaida in Iraq, who’ve pushed much of the Shiite population into small pockets, are still operating from abandoned houses in the neighborhood, said Lt. Col Stephen Michael, who commands 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade, of the 1st Infantry Division. Last week, an American soldier was killed.

Everywhere Petraeus went on Saturday, shopkeepers asked when they would have such services as electricity.

One vendor watched Petraeus and his guard detail of about 20 heavily armed men move through the market. He lazily fanned flies from the minced meat he was selling.

“The market is dying,” he said. “The market is dying.”

Dora is a strategic area for the U.S. military to secure in southeast Baghdad. It lies between the capital and its volatile Sunni suburbs where al-Qaida dominates. During a failed effort last summer, securing Dora also was among the Americans’ first missions.

Signs of American actions in recent weeks are clearly visible, as is evidence of previous intense combat. Dozens of buildings have been spray-painted with Xs and circles to show they’d been searched and cleared by U.S. forces. Many buildings bear the pockmarks and missing windows of recent fighting.

In the center of the market the words “The Swamp” are scrawled in green and black marker. It marks the new home of a company of men from the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry, who now sleep, eat and live among the shoes, fruit and clothing stalls that have come back to the market.