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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Armed Thugs Menace Baghdad Businesses

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Armed thugs drive past Ghassan Touza's Baghdad metal workshop nearly every day in the car they stole from him a month ago, honking the horn.

They want Touza, a steel importer, to pay $1,200 to retrieve his $10,000 car, now painted taxi-yellow. Touza says he will not pay.

"I don't want to talk to them," he said. "They will take the money and the car. How can I trust them?"

Iraqi businessmen say they are scared of armed gangs and have nowhere to turn. They fear their homes will be robbed, their businesses burned and their family kidnapped -- or worse.

Some businesses, like Touza's, are suffering because of the lawlessness. But others are thriving after import duties were scrapped for 2003 and prices plummeted, fueling consumer spending, particularly on previously banned goods.

Satellite dishes, barred until Saddam Hussein was ousted in April, overflow onto the sidewalks of Baghdad's commercial streets, where Thuraya satellite phones are also on sale.

"Everything is available, even drugs," a Baghdad electronics dealer said.

Dealers in consumer goods, particularly electronics, say their earnings have soared as east Asian-made products have poured into the country.

Cuts in taxes have meant prices for some goods have halved. Traders said they sell refrigerators for $350, down from $600 before the war. Variety has meant more competition and lower profit margins, but much higher sales.

The removal of state controls that has allowed some businesses to thrive comes at a price. Plainclothes armed guards stand beside boxes of air conditioners and refrigerators on the sidewalk in front of Antoine Dankhachona's electronics shop.

"For the company, I have 10 guards. They are all armed. If I didn't have them, we would be killed," he said.