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Iraqis buy Hummers as power icons

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By ROD NORDLAND NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE in Baghdad
  • Published 30.03.09
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Baghdad, March 30: Ali al-Hilli is a happy man. He has a wife and three kids, a prosperous business and — this is the important part — a Hummer in his driveway.

In a country with at least 20,000 Humvees and a war-weary population, who would think there would be a market for the civilian version?

Hilli did. “I just knew there’d be a huge demand for this in Baghdad,” he said. Now Hilli and his brother Dhafir run a car dealership specializing in Hummers. It is called, in English, “Al Sultan for Trading Cars.”

An American diplomat declared that it was the biggest Hummer dealership outside the US, a fact that seemed too good to check. Unfortunately, Hilli has checked. “It’s the biggest one in Baghdad, though, that’s for sure,” he said.

Never mind that General Motors, Hummer’s struggling parent company, may scrap the brand or sell it to someone else.

“Iraqis love them because they’re really a symbol of power,” said Hilli, a chubby 37-year-old who could not stop chuckling. Nonetheless, he spoke with authority, since he was his own first customer.

Hummers in Baghdad are symbols of much more besides: increasing security, returning normality and a yearning for the trappings of sovereignty. Hilli allowed that there was something else, too, a little more indefinable, which in Arabic is “hasad thukuri,” and which in English will be translated later.

The Hilli brothers first got their coals-to-Newcastle brainstorm a couple of years ago, during the height of the sectarian violence. “Even if we imported these back then, no one would have dared to drive around in them,” Ali al-Hilli said.

Insurgents were taking aim at anything that looked foreign, let alone an analogue of an American military vehicle.

Then the war started quieting down and, about a year ago, they found an online auction for repossessed nearly new cars in the US. They put in the winning bid on a Humvee H3, which they air-freighted in through Dubai, followed by a second one. “Everyone thought we were crazy,” Hilli said. “Or they thought we were Iraqi government officials,” who can most easily afford such cars.

At first the Hummers sat on the lot and attracted little interest. “We took such a risk, it’s such an expensive car, and all our money was in it,” said Dhafir al-Hilli, 38. So the brothers got in the cars and began driving around their Kadhimiya neighborhood, a largely Shia area that had so often been a target of terrorists that it was walled off and relatively safe.

“It helped that in Kadhimiya we didn’t have such a bad opinion of the Americans,” Ali al-Hilli said. “People often asked the soldiers to stop their Humvees so they could get their pictures in front of them.”

Idling through the city’s relentless traffic jams, the Hummers were their own advertising campaign. “We couldn’t go a block without people stopping us to ask, ‘What is it?’ ” Hilli said.

Soon conditions improved enough to drive all over the city. Hummer H3s began rumbling off the lot, at 50 to 60 grand apiece, in dollars and all the money down, fully loaded. (No one wanted them any other way.)

Canary yellow and fire engine red proved the favorite colours. “No one complains that they remind them of the American military,” Hilli said. “It’s much more trouble driving around in a Samand.” Made in Iran, the car is the surrogate object of many Iraqis’ scorn for Iran itself.

The Hillis said they had sold more than 20 H3s, about one every 10 days, even in the midst of plummeting oil prices and economic turmoil. Their biggest customers tend to be government officials. That is not necessarily a sign of corruption, since the new government has voted itself enormous pay raises.

Iraqis are paying historically high prices for petrol. At $1.40 a gallon, that would not break any American hearts, but not long ago it was 19 cents. The increase had no effect on sales of these notorious gas-guzzlers, though. “If you can afford this car, you don’t care how much petrolcosts,” Hilli said.