BAGHDAD, Iraq – Down on the 14th of Ramadan Street, Mohammed Hadi shouted out his offer to anyone who would listen: athletic shoes — cheap.
No matter that they were stolen. No matter that he knew it. He insisted he had to sell them to survive.
Vendors have fanned out across the capital by the hundreds in recent days selling food, medical equipment, sportswear and other miscellany for as little as one-fifth the usual cost. The items were looted in the days after coalition forces entered Baghdad and ousted Saddam Hussein.
"I started this job only five days ago," said Hadi, whose small furniture shop has been closed for weeks.
On Monday, Hadi was selling a pair of athletic shoes for 12,000 dinars, or about $4, nearly one-third the usual price. Boxing gloves were going for under $2 a pair.
In Liberation Square, a man who wouldn't give his name was asked what the surgical tools he was selling could be used for.
"I have no idea," he said. "I can tell you that it is usually sold in dollars but I am selling it for 500 dinars [16 cents]. Any piece — 500 dinars."
Baghdad became a lawless city on April 9 when Saddam's regime collapsed. Since then, bandits have ransacked libraries, museums, government buildings, hospitals and schools in an orgy of looting that has provoked Iraqis to complain that the United States has not done enough to keep order.
The situation has improved lately with crackdowns by Iraqi police and U.S. troops, but all over the city, looted items are popping up — and going fast. It's not a proud moment for Iraqis, but it is a snapshot into the opportunities that sudden chaos can offer.
Some of those who pillaged said they did so because they could — and because they were poor. From the looks of things this week, some also did it simply for the profit.
In Liberation Square, dozens of vendors haggled Monday with thousands of shoppers over prices. Most of the time, the prices came down.
One vendor, carrying a bag on his back, offered a reporter a Kalashnikov assault rifle magazine filled with 30 bullets for 35,000 dinars, about $12. "I have more in the bag if you want," the man said hopefully.
Another hawker was selling passbooks looted from the Defense Ministry, showing that Iraqis had completed military service. On the last page of the passbook was a note: "Any person who forges any kind of personal information in this book could get up to 15 years in prison."
"In normal days it costs 250,000 dinars [$83]. I am selling it for just 500 dinars [17 cents]," he said.
In the al-Mansour neighborhood, two dozen vendors stood in front of the bomb-damaged grounds of the Baghdad International Fair selling sugar and tea apparently looted from the Ministry of Trade, which oversaw food imports under the U.N. oil-for-food program.
Hadi, the shoe vendor, knows what he sells is looted. But he insists he's not to blame. After all, he says — he paid for them.
Hadi says he bought the stolen goods through middlemen who get commissions, and that he had no contact with the thieves themselves.
"I am against buying from such places, but we don't have law in the country these days," said Qais Sadeq, a taxi driver who was buying a pair of shoes. "I would have never been able to buy it from a shop."
It was the same story for Issam Ali Hussein, who works at an air-conditioning company.
"Had I wanted to buy these sports trousers from a shop, I would have paid 10,000 dinars [about $3]. I bought it for half price here," Hussein said.
Hussein hastened to add that he opposes buying stolen goods, but he insisted he had no choice: All the shops he frequents are closed.