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Iraq market was tightly secured for McCain, merchants say

Bulletproof vests and attack copters

US Senator John McCain of Arizona visited the Shorja marketplace on Sunday and spoke with merchants in Baghdad. (handout via REUTERS)

BAGHDAD -- A day after members of an American congressional delegation led by Senator John McCain of Arizona pointed to their brief visit to Baghdad's central market as evidence that the new security plan for the city was working, the merchants there were incredulous about the Americans' conclusions.

"What are they talking about?" Ali Jassim Faiyad, the owner of an electrical appliances shop in the market, said yesterday. "The security procedures were abnormal!"

The delegation arrived at the market, which is called Shorja, on Sunday with more than 100 soldiers in armored Humvees -- the equivalent of an entire company -- and attack helicopters circled overhead, a senior American military official in Baghdad said. The soldiers redirected traffic from the area and restricted access to the Americans, witnesses said, and sharpshooters were posted on the rooftops. The congressmen wore bulletproof vests throughout their hourlong visit.

"They paralyzed the market when they came," Faiyad said during an interview in his shop yesterday. "This was only for the media."

He added, "This will not change anything."

At a news conference shortly after their outing, McCain, a Republican, and his three congressional colleagues described Shorja as a safe, bustling place full of hopeful and warmly welcoming Iraqis -- "like a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summertime," offered Representative Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana, who was a member of the delegation.

But the market that the congressmen said they saw is fundamentally different from the market Iraqis know.

Merchants and customers say that a campaign by insurgents to attack Baghdad's markets has put many shop owners out of business and forced radical changes in the way people shop. Shorja, the city's oldest and largest market, set in a sprawling labyrinth of narrow streets and alleyways, has been bombed at least a half-dozen times since last summer.

At least 61 people were killed and many more wounded in a three-pronged attack there on Feb. 12, involving two vehicle bombs and a roadside bomb.

American and Iraq security forces have tried to protect Shorja and other markets against car bombs by restricting vehicular traffic in some areas and erecting blast walls around the markets' perimeters. But these measures have not made them safe.