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Happy not to make a living off the dead

Times Staff Writer

During the last six months, Ibrahim Khalaf Abbas’ furniture and general supplies store has switched from providing set-ups for mourning ceremonies to catering wedding celebrations.

At the height of the sectarian violence that racked Baghdad this year, the six sets of equipment that Abbas owned -- including hundreds of blue and gray striped tents, stackable plastic chairs, and metal folding tables -- were constantly out on hire.

His equipment was in such demand for traditional Muslim mourning ceremonies that Abbas often had to borrow additional supplies from other stores.

Charging up to $200 per set for a typical three-day rental, the shopkeeper was able to turn a pretty profit.

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During the darkest days of Baghdad’s violence, death became a lucrative industry for many business owners like Abbas.

Today, that trend appears to be changing.

“The atmosphere in the city before was only sadness clothed in blood, and mourning ceremonies,” said Abbas, whose store is located in Baghdad’s Shiite Muslim-dominated Sadr City neighborhood. “Now we have wedding parties.”

As Abbas spoke, a wedding convoy passed with car horns tooting, cheers and laughter.

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Overall attacks have dropped sharply in Baghdad in recent months after an increase in U.S. troops from February. Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr’s cease-fire, and local citizens’ groups that are partnering with U.S. forces to fight off insurgents have also contributed to the relative calm.

Despite heralding the surge of U.S. soldiers as a success, commanders with the Multi-National Forces in Iraq caution that the militants have not been conquered, and that long-term stability remains the goal.

A recent spate of blasts, including a car bombing outside a crowded juice shop in a central Baghdad neighborhood that killed at least 14 people, underscores the tenuous nature of security in the capital.

“This is still an enemy with a determined purpose,” Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, director of the communications division of the Multi-National Force in Iraq, recently told reporters in Baghdad. “And they are bent on nothing short of turning back the progress that’s taken place.”

Despite the latest attacks, overall the number has dropped by more than half since June, according to the U.S. military, and many Iraqis say the improved security is palpable.

In the last month, Abbas has only rented out once for a mourning ceremony, and the deceased had not been a victim of violence, the shopkeeper said.

Nowadays, his supplies are primarily used for wedding parties. There are between 10 and 15 weddings a week, compared with two or three a month during the worst of the violence, Abbas said.

Charging about $50 for a few hours, Abbas says his ability to make money hasn’t waned.

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“I feel happier now than before,” he said, adding that catering to marriages was more satisfying than profiting from death.

Across the street from Abbas’ store, Hussan Jassim works as a carpenter with his father. During the height of the sectarian attacks, he would get commissions to make seven to 10 coffins every two to three weeks. (Some carpenters making coffins for Christian burials were reportedly knocking out as many as 50 a month.)

But in Iraqi Muslim tradition, caskets are typically lent from a mosque for transporting a body, usually buried only in a cloth shroud, to the cemetery, and then returned to the mosque so someone else can borrow them.

That individuals were asking him to make coffins indicated a possible shortage of caskets for loan from mosques, Jassim said.

But in the last two months, Jassim hasn’t made one coffin. He is making a living these days by crafting beds, cupboards and other furniture.

Though his income has plummeted -- his coffins fetched about $50 each, more than most other items he makes -- the 20-year-old carpenter said he felt satisfied.

“I’m happy because I feel the security is better; and thank God for it,” Jassim said.

Lawmaker Haider Abadi, a member of the Shiite Islamic Dawa Party, shares the sentiment. Mourning ceremonies at his local mosque went from one a day, to three a day when the violence was at its worst. And he would personally attend at least three memorials a week for people killed in his local area, Abadi said. In the last month, he has only had to attend one such ceremony.

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“This is quite a difference,” Abadi said.

Officials at Baghdad’s morgue confirmed the number of corpses arriving each day had dropped from between 20 and 70 at the beginning of the year, to fewer than 10 each day.

While it is unclear how many of the dead are victims of war- related violence, police sources confirmed that the number of deaths believed to be the result of sectarian attacks averages about five per day, compared with between 20 and 30 during the summer. The deceased are typically men, dumped across the city, their hands often tied and their bodies sometimes showing signs of torture.

Abadi, who is chief of parliament’s economic investment committee, confirmed that small businesses were starting to flourish again thanks to the improved stability.

Many shops and markets have reopened, and gridlocked traffic in Baghdad is a sign that residents are feeling more confident about moving around the city, Abadi said.

“It’s quite noticeable.”

And not only in the business arena.

A seemingly strange thing happened to ambulance driver Mohammed Jassim recently. He went to a Sunni Muslim neighborhood in west Baghdad, picked up a woman who was pregnant and transported her to Kindi Hospital in a predominantly Shiite area of east Baghdad.

Six months ago such an ordinary assignment would have been near impossible, the 25-year-old Shiite driver said. With sectarian violence racking the city, ambulances were often targeted by snipers and roadside bombs. At least 11 of his colleagues were killed on the job.

The pregnant woman would have had to get a police escort to an ambulance waiting at a neutral location, Jassim said.

He recalled the 50 trips a day he would sometimes make ferrying the dead and wounded to hospitals from the scene of a bombing. His job also involved collecting body parts in cartons and loading them into the ambulance. The task typically left his clothes splattered with blood.

“There are many incidents I can’t forget,” Jassim said.

These days, though security is still fragile, the driver said he was less afraid of going to work.

“Thank God, things have changed,” he said. “It’s much better than before.”

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ann.simmons@latimes.com

Times staff writer Raheem Salman and a special correspondent in Baghdad contributed to this report.


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