BAGHDAD The crack of shots fired by unseen snipers echoed on Monday through Baghdad's wholesale Shorja market, a day after U.S. Senator John McCain held up his visit there as one sign of improving security in Baghdad.
The Republican presidential hopeful said his hour-long tour of the sprawling market, where 71 people were killed by a huge car bomb in February, would have been unthinkable before the seven-week-old U.S.-Iraqi crackdown in the capital.
Shoppers and merchants agreed on Monday that security had improved since the start of the operation, when the market was blocked off to prevent further such bombings, but took issue with what they considered an overly upbeat assessment by McCain.
Many still do not dare venture into the northern half of the long street, beyond a overhead pedestrian bridge, and enter what is dubbed "The sniper zone", where people are picked off by gunmen on nearby rooftops.
Merchants said the snipers, whom they claim came from the neighboring Sunni Fadhl neighborhood, killed at least one person a day on average.
Despite the sniper threat, shoppers and merchants seemed unfazed when several shots rang out, as a Reuters reporter was interviewing them.
"Who said there was security?" asked carpet salesman Abu Ammar, 55, who said he sold McCain a $60 Turkish rug.
"I told him there were snipers who were really harming us," he said, sitting behind his large office desk. "I told him the plan had improved security but Shorja still wasn't fully safe."
McCain, a strong backer of the Baghdad crackdown, was part of a congressional delegation that was heavily protected by U.S. soldiers and helicopters during its visit to Shorja on Sunday. They drove in armored vehicles and wore body armor.
Afterwards McCain told reporters: "The American people are not getting the picture of all that is happening here. Things are better ... but I am not saying mission accomplished."
On Monday, the market was filled with young men pushing goods on wooden carts and merchants buying wholesale products. Near the exotic animal section of the market, Firas Mohammed, 27, was buying clothes for his nearby store.
"I feel more confident coming here now because I see a lot of people are still shopping here, but I only shop in the areas outside the sniper zone," he said, carrying a large plastic bag.
Another shopper, Najah Abdullah, said he had never been deterred from buying goods at the market despite the violence.
"I do feel a lot safer since the security plan was enforced but it's a shame these steps weren't taken earlier," he said as he loaded boxes of chocolate on to his moped.
The Baghdad security plan, dubbed Operation Imposing Law, has succeeded in reducing the murder rate, although car bombs continue to plague the capital and violence has surged in areas outside the city untouched by the crackdown.
McCain, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination for 2008, said on Sunday he believed the new U.S. strategy in Iraq was making progress. He has been a vocal critic of President George W. Bush's handling of the war in the past.
Shorja market merchant Abu Samir, 31, said McCain bought an Egyptian rug from him and told him through an interpreter: "I want to run for president. And, don't worry, because I'll handle the war better than Bush."
(Additional reporting by Wathiq Ibrahim)