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Monday, 14 October, 2002, 21:13 GMT 22:13 UK
Coveting cars in Baghdad
A policeman directs traffic in Baghdad
Iraq has many shortages, but cars are not among them

BBC correspondent Roger Hearing reflects on Iraqis' love of cars as he struggles to get around Baghdad - a city he has known for a decade - in the second of his postcards for BBC News Online.

I have spent more time this week than I expected in traffic jams.

Whatever else may be in short supply in Baghdad, it isn't cars. And, despite what you might think, not all are rusty or battered or broken.

Traffic jam in Baghdad
Shiny limousines mix with older, more battered cars on Baghdad's streets
The last time I saw so many shining air-conditioned gas-guzzlers on the streets of Baghdad, was just after the invasion of Kuwait, when the roads were full of "liberated" limousines.

The big change now, I'm told, is that the government has relaxed import duty on new cars - and also the middle classes, at least, seem to have money to spend on them.

For the first time since 1991, allowances to those in government jobs have risen.

We are not talking about riches, but there is a little leavening of the grim poverty civil servants have endured over the last decade.

Car-friendly city

And the streets are full of hire-purchase cars, clogging up the capital's grandiose boulevards and flyovers.

As befits an oil state, petrol is ridiculously cheap here - you would spend more buying bread than filling your car tank.

Women shopping in a Baghdad market
It is cheaper to buy a tankful of petrol than daily necessities like bread
So the rush hour in Baghdad would rival London or New York, and Baghdadis spend long hours sitting stationary in their proud new purchases.

And this IS a city built for the automobile.

Apart from the old town along the riverbank, space has never been an issue.

This is, after all, an oasis settlement, with little but flat desert or palm groves all around - nothing to impede expansion.

The sprawling suburbs are linked by multi-lane highways that swoop and arch in all directions.

The downside is that you usually have to pass and circle your destination several times before you can get into the right lane to reach it.

Pedestrian peril

The traffic is pretty unforgiving to those who still have to use their feet.

Only this week, the brother-in-law of the one of the BBC's Iraqi staff died after being knocked over by a large truck which did not or could not stop as he crossed the road.

There is, you see, a major problem with maintenance - because of sanctions, spare parts are very hard to get hold of.

The best option is to buy the mocked-up parts smuggled in, usually from east Asia - but, my informant told me, you have to replace them after a week or two, or the engine will seize up.

Escape route

Yet the Iraqi love-affair with the car transcends all this.

One reason may be that in a state where everybody watches and listens to everybody else, it is at least a tiny bit of private space.

Another may be that, should the worst happen in Baghdad in the next few months, it could be their best, or possibly their only, means of escape.

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See also:

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