The Search for a Missing U.S. Soldier: A Double Standard?

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U.S. soldiers wait for the owner of a Baghdad house to open the gate to his home, October 2006

In Karrada, the downtown Baghdad neighborhood where the search for the missing American soldier has been concentrated, the lockdown imposed by U.S. and Iraqi forces since Monday night could not have come at a worse time. What should have been a day of joyous celebration has instead turned into a time of high anxiety as American troops conduct house-to-house searches. The shops and businesses that line the neighborhood's two main roads, known as "Karrada In" and "Karrada Out," are shut on what should have been their busiest day of the year.

Although sympathetic toward the kidnapped American, especially since he is believed to be of Iraqi descent, many residents are resentful of the lockdown, saying it hurts them in the wallet. Others say shutting down the district to search for one man smacks of double standards in a country where kidnapping has become commonplace.

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Karrada is a Shi'ite-majority district, and just hours earlier on Monday night, the community had heard the announcement that Ramadan was officially over. This was greeted by volleys of celebratory gunfire, in the Iraqi tradition. The end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, is announced by religious seaders upon sighting of the auspicious moon. Sunni leaders made their announcement on Sunday night; typically, Shi'ites follow 24 hours later.

The first day after Ramadan is the festival of Eid, a day of feasting, shopping for new clothes and giving gifts — and many residents of Baghdad would normally have made a beeline for Karrada's shops, where they can buy everything from large-screen TVs and air conditioners to garments and sweets. In anticipation of a spike in demand, many shopkeepers had doubled their inventory. But because the neighborhood has been shut off by U.S. and Iraqi forces, shoppers are taking their business elsewhere, much to the chagrin of Karrada's business community. "In a good year, as much as 20% of my annual income would have come from the first couple of days after Ramadan," says Mohammed Abdel-Jaffar, who sells crockery and cutlery. "But now my customers are probably shopping somewhere else."

If that attitude seems churlish, remember that the lockdown is just the latest in a long line of setbacks they have endured this year. Just this summer alone, Karrada witnessed several car-bomb and mortar attacks, most of them blamed on Sunni insurgents and jihadi groups. Each time, the district has shaken off the debris and gotten back to business. But the damage to their business is crippling, say shopkeepers.

Moreover, residents say dozens of people have been kidnapped from Karrada in the past year. For many residents, the most galling thing about today's lockdown is the sight of Iraqi forces assisting in the search for the missing U.S. soldier; it suggests that even to their own government, an American life is more precious than an Iraqi one. "Iraqis are kidnapped every day, but nobody ever shuts down an entire neighborhood for them," said Mohsen abu Ziad, a Karrada resident. "But I guess an Iraqi life is worth nothing compared to an American life."