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4-Wheel Driven: Iraqis Renew Love of Luxury

Times Staff Writer

There may be few better places in the world to buy a used luxury car than the rubble-strewn streets of this city.

A 2002 Mercedes-Benz C-class retails for $20,000; a 1995 E320 with all the extras has an asking price of $7,000. And stories abound of late-model Land Rovers selling for similar bargains. Of course, the setting is a far cry from the Cerritos Auto Square.

Down the street from police checkpoints, stores hawk shiny, high-end cars, some scarred with bullet holes. Shoppers are distracted by American helicopters screeching overhead. One huge retailer has hauled in empty, rusting railroad cars to house the dozens of guards who watch over its acres of autos.

That doesn’t bother Sabiha Hasan Ibrahim, a 62-year-old nurse who is fed up with transferring seven times a day on Baghdad’s buses for her three-hour commute.

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“Thanks to God,” she said as she cruised the Nahadah car market, grilling dealers to make sure their newly dis- counted cars weren’t stolen, “this is the reality now.”

As befits the residents of a wide and flat desert country where until recently gasoline was cheaper than water, Iraqis have long been car crazy. Their automotive obsession has reached new heights since the fall of Saddam Hussein, who kept a quota on the number of cars permitted in the country.

Hussein’s government had not imported a significant number of vehicles since 1980, consigning most Iraqis to a boxy, rusting existence on the roads. Now the range of newly purchased cars on the streets of Iraq -- almost all used and imported from Jordan and Syria or other neighboring countries -- is the most prominent sign of the nation’s shaky steps toward a consumer culture.

Since the end of the war and the 13-year U.N. embargo against Iraq, the nation has been flooded with merchandise from all over the world. Iraqis are marveling at products rarely or never seen under Hussein’s reign, from satellite dishes to blenders to Pringles potato chips.

Although the country’s newly rampant crime and uncertain future have dampened some consumers’ enthusiasm, many who once hoarded money in case they needed to bribe the secret police are now going shopping.

“Iraqis have been banking for bad days,” said Humam Shamaa, an economist at Baghdad University. “Now they feel the bad days will not come again. So they spend on the most important thing for them, which is a car.”

After all, said Shamaa, who bought his son a 1990 BMW immediately after the fall of Hussein, “Iraqi people have been prevented from buying new cars for almost 30 years.”

Iraqi commerce with other countries virtually ended in 1980 with the start of Iraq’s eight-year war against Iran, which was soon followed by the embargo and the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Many Iraqis paid thousands of dollars to the government to get on lists for new cars that never came.

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Under Hussein, onerous customs duties and taxes jacked up the price of most cars, and only a handful of import licenses were doled out, for high fees. This meant that only the well-connected drove luxury vehicles. Perhaps the best-connected was Hussein’s son Uday, whose fleet of Rolls-Royces and other expensive cars was legendary and who reportedly would demand that anyone spotted driving a more opulent car hand over the vehicle or face prison -- or worse.

Many Iraqis shuddered when they saw a late-model BMW or Mercedes in their rear-view mirror, knowing a friend of the dictator’s was probably inside.

Hussein Aziz remembers a time from a few years ago when he was driving a friend around Baghdad in his battered Peugeot and pulled up next to a parked GMC sport utility vehicle that clearly belonged to a Hussein loyalist. After making sure the owner wasn’t around, Aziz’s friend leaned out the passenger window and lovingly stroked the vehicle’s side.

“We were asking ourselves, ‘Will the day come when we can ride such a car?’ ” recalled Aziz, a former military captain who was once imprisoned for questioning Hussein.

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Now Hussein’s fees and controls have been abolished and the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority has eliminated taxes on imports, at least for now. Aziz owns one of the 114,000 cars that have been registered in Baghdad since the war’s end, a 1992 Toyota Corolla -- “Thanks to God,” he says.

Another Baghdad resident who recently upgraded is Khatab Habib, who registered his newly purchased 1991 Toyota Crown Super Select with Baghdad’s traffic police Wednesday. The 28-year-old taxi driver said he is thrilled he won’t need to deal with the perpetual maintenance problems and painful seats of his old Brazilian-made Volkswagen. “I feel like I’m in paradise,” he said.

Iraqis boast of their personal connection to their cars. Friends will frequently ask after one another’s vehicles, using the cars’ personal nicknames -- “How’s Abu Jumeili? How’s Abu Jamal?”

Cars, said 42-year-old Baghdad pharmacy owner Jubran Saffar, “are like a piece of the family.” Saffar calls his blue 1980 Peugeot “Sattoota,” after a homely yet dependable girl featured in an old Iraqi comic book.

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Cars are needed not only to navigate Iraq’s sprawling, low-lying cities, but to maintain connections with rural relatives. Mohammed Yahya Timimi, 33, lives in Baghdad and has long relied on a 1988 Nissan pickup for regular runs to the back roads of his hometown of Baqubah, about 25 miles northeast of the capital.

Aware that car prices are plummeting, Timimi was tempted to drop by the Nahadah auto market and treat himself to a newer vehicle.

But, like many Iraqis now, he was an ambivalent shopper. Timimi’s carpet factory was looted after the war, and he did not want to buy too flashy a car, for fear of becoming a target for bandits.

“They are stealing everything now,” he said. “They might kill you just for your shirt.”

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To many, this fear represents the paradox of the new Iraq -- awash in glamorous goods, but rife with poverty, crime and terrorism. “Even paradise is unbearable without good people,” Timimi said, citing an old proverb. “Happiness without feeling secure is nothing.”

Mohammed Ahwan Saad, a former lieutenant colonel in the Iraqi police who became a luxury car dealer, said his business was up 50% since Hussein’s ouster and would be even better if the situation were more stable.

“If it was a good security situation, you would see many people asking for Rolls-Royces, Jaguars, Lamborghinis,” he said.

Despite the risks, Saad drives a late-model Mercedes. “Some people will not evaluate you for what you are,” he said. “They will evaluate you for what you are driving.”

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Safety also weighed on the mind of 24-year-old Mohammed Mustafa Saleh as he leaned back into the buttery leather seats of a 1995 Mercedes E320 at the Nahadah lot and smiled. From a wealthy agricultural family, Saleh has long been obsessed with Mercedes and bought his first, a 1991, two years ago.

“I feel like a king,” he said. But he hesitated. A beauty like this E320 would make him a prime carjacking target. Maybe he should buy it but leave it in his garage, until the situation improved, he mused.

“This is the best time to buy such a car,” Saleh said, “but this is the worst time, because of security.” After several more minutes of hungrily eyeing the gleaming white Mercedes, Saleh made up his mind. He left without buying the car.

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Suheil Ahmed and Sameer Mohammed of The Times’ Baghdad Bureau contributed to this report.


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