Iraq bid to sew up tailormade loophole

BAGHDAD: Iraq is clamping down on a booming Baghdad retail trade in police and military uniforms amid fears it may have provided Al-Qaeda with the disguises that made possible a spate of suicide bombings.

Authorities have told tailors and vendors that in future only authorised security force personnel will be allowed to buy uniforms which previously they could sell to anybody, both bespoke and off the peg.

Market stallholders said that they had been threatened with prosecution if it emerged that uniforms they had sold were subsequently used in insurgent attacks.

“Ten days ago, government officials came and asked us not to sell uniforms to just anyone. They said in future we have to demand to see an identity card and proof they are in the police or army,” Yahia Atayta, 40, said. The scion of a long line of tailors, he said he thought the new restrictions were a good thing.

The past six months have seen a spate of suicide bombings targeting government buildings or upmarket hotels in the heart of the capital, that have killed scores of people.

The bombers succeeded in passing through multiple roadblocks to reach their targets and, while officials have charged there may have been collusion or corruption within the security forces, they say police or military disguise was the most important factor.

A senior defence ministry official said: “All of the suicide attacks that have hit the Diyala, Al-Anbar, Baghdad, Mosul and Samarra regions have been carried out by Al-Qaeda members wearing military uniforms that they used to get through roadblocks.”

The method was used to devastating effect on December 30 when a bomber managed to penetrate the heart of the Al-Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi to kill 23 people and wound the provincial governor.

Atayta is one of hundreds of tailors who ply their trade in the alleyways of the Rasheed neighbourhood of central Baghdad.

Before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in the US-led invasion of 2003, they used to turn out tens of thousands of copies of the olive drab uniform of the now executed dictator’s massive armed forces, which were disbanded in one of the first acts of the occupation.

Now they produce the new multi-coloured uniforms of the new Iraqi army which the US military trained to take over security responsibilities as they withdraw. The practice keeps the tailors in business in a country where unemployment remains high, but it has created the loophole which officials say insurgents have been quick to exploit.

The Al-Rasheed tailors say that in reality they are not the real problem. They say a much readier source of uniforms lies in the nearby Bab al-Sharji market where cheap Chinese-made copies can be bought for as little as $17 compared with the $40 to 50 they charge.

Market stallholder Jabbar Kazem Assad, 45, questioned how effective the new restrictions would be. “If they can manage to reach the heart of Baghdad and blow up government ministries, then getting hold of uniforms is hardly going to be a problem,” he said.

Not even security force personnel seemed convinced the new rules would make much difference. “Borders are open and insurgents get hold of whatever they want. They don’t need to come to the market,” a policeman wandering around the stalls said.