U.S. pullout from Iraq triggers epic garage sale

BAGHDAD Mon Jun 21, 2010 2:40am EDT

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The detritus of occupation comes in all shapes and sizes.

In Iraq, it's M-16 ammunition clips, rifle bipods and body armor at Baghdad's Haraj market.

Or Playboy DVDs, Irish Spring soap and military-issue MREs (Meal, Ready-to-Eat) at a store in Karrada district, scavenged from the trash or more often skimmed off supplies at U.S. bases by industrious local contractors.

For traders in U.S. cast-offs, now is the last hurrah.

The remaining 85,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq are pulling out over the next 18 months, and the Pentagon is getting rid of the fixtures and fittings of the bases they live in, some of it at auction, some bound for the black market.

Among the items hitting the streets are air-conditioners and refrigerators from 500 bases the U.S. operated at the height of its presence in 2007, when some 170,000 soldiers were trying to keep Iraq from tearing itself apart. The size of the U.S. force in Iraq meant many of the bases were like cities, with PX shops as big as Wal-Marts, and Burger King and Krispy Kreme stores.

The sectarian war has largely subsided. A stubborn insurgency unleashed after the U.S. invasion of 2003 is less intense but not yet extinguished.

In the western desert province of Anbar, a hotbed of Sunni Islamist insurgents in 2006/07, traders sift through old vacuum cleaners, satellite dishes and spare parts of U.S. military vehicles, stripping down wooden cabins and portable toilets.

Such are the spoils of modern war, while stocks last.

"I think the price of this equipment could go up because of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq," said Faiez Ahmed, picking through U.S. scrap near the Anbar city of Ramadi.

"Some of this equipment can still be used, like the fridges, air-conditioners, mattresses, tents," he said. "The rest that can't, like tires, goes to smelters in the north.

"People look for this equipment because of its specifications ... and because what is available in the market is all either Chinese-made or Korean." He did not specify how the equipment ended up there.

CORNER-CUTTING

When the U.S. military deploys, it often puts down roots.

In Kosovo, after NATO bombs drove out Serb forces in 1999, the U.S. military built Camp Bondsteel in Urosevac for 7,000 soldiers complete with a chapel, sewage plant, hospital and jail. The grey economy thrived, and 1,500 troops are still there.

In Iraq, the United States isn't sticking around.

Combat operations end in August and troop numbers drop to 50,000 by September 1, before a full withdrawal by the end of 2011.

Much of their hardware goes to U.S. forces in Afghanistan or is repatriated. Some equipment goes to the Iraqi government.

More than 370 bases have been handed over, and the military says it is "transitioning" to Iraq 62,000 excess items, including vehicles and office furniture. A visible legacy of the invasion is a huge fleet of oil-thirsty SUVs plying Iraqi roads.

Items such as washing machines, air-conditioners, driers, refrigerators and lights are being sold to the public.

"This year, we've pushed out 20 million pounds (9,000 metric tons) and we've received roughly $500,000 that has gone back into the state treasury," U.S. Brigadier General Gustave Perna said at a briefing.

The military says its clean-out procedures are "deliberate and systematic" and that it has treated and disposed of more than 130,000 metric tons of toxic waste.

Critics, however, point to the body armor and rifle parts that can be found in street markets, and to reports of toxic materials turning up in open dumps, as evidence of corner-cutting and corruption.

"They (the U.S.) dump it in this deserted land, and along comes the ordinary man to buy it," said Ramadi dealer Ahmed.

Mohammed al-Saiedi, a trader at the Haraj market, said he started selling U.S. gear in 2004, as Iraq spiraled out of control and the economy ground to a halt.

"I used to sell sunglasses before the fall of the regime, but it was a bit slow," he said.

Like Iraq, traders of U.S. hardware face an unclear future.

"Dealing with the Americans is not 'haram' (unclean). It's business," the Karrada store-owner said, asking not to be named. Behind him stood a bottle of "Anti Monkey Butt sweat absorber."

"They're quality products. People like them," he said. "When this runs out, I'll get a new job, or go back to selling shoes."

(Additional reporting by Ali al-Mashhadani in Ramadi; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Michael Christie)

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