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Consumer Reports

Iraqis show entrepreneurial spirit by running line of stolen buses | (KRT) BAGHDAD Wearing a neatly pressed blue shirt, Basim Hanaz Alwan navigates the red double-decker bus through traffic. He greets passengers with a warm smile, wishes them a good morning and politely waves to drivers on passing buses.

Along the way, riders chatter about the fallout from the Iraq war. An attendant walks the aisles with a wad of dinars and collects the fares.

No one on the bus seems to care that Alwan and his sidekick apparently are looters operating the stolen bus for personal profit.

"That's his business," said passenger Thumir Ali. "I am just happy for the ride."

There have been many outrageous acts of larceny by Iraqis since the fall of Baghdad. But even in this lawless capital, the continuing brazenness of thieves who run a vast unofficial transportation network stands out.

As thousands of U.S. troops patrol to keep order, looters drive past them in bright crimson buses that Saddam Hussein bought through China a few years back. The troops shoo the drivers along when they linger at stops in heavy traffic.

"I haven't heard a thing about that," Capt. David Connolly, an Army spokesman, said of the hijacked bus lines operating for more than seven weeks.

Before the war, about 300 double-decker buses clogged Baghdad streets. Drivers say they were shoddy and did not run well. Saddam got them at a discount, circumventing sanctions by using a middleman.

After the war, looters stole about two-thirds of the buses, stripping many of them, burning some and leaving a trail of abandoned carriages on roadsides.

But a few enterprising thieves figured a bus was worth more intact than in pieces and took some home. With the city reeling from postwar violence, they put an armed guard or two in the top deck and began daily service along the main routes.

Iraqis facing blocks-long lines for gasoline hopped aboard. Passengers don't seem to mind that the fare varies from bus to bus and in most instances has doubled since the war to about 500 dinars, roughly 40 cents.

In a chaotic country with no government, the buses are one of the few things that run efficiently.

"It is a testimony to how Iraqis can make things work despite the American occupation," said passenger Ali, a chicken merchant riding to work recently. "It makes Iraqis proud."

Not all Iraqis are pleased, however.

Supervisors and drivers returning to the transportation yards after the war were stunned by the extent of the looting. They managed to salvage a few buses and decided to form what they see as the city's official transit agency.

They devised a plan to pool the fare money and use it for repairs, salaries and armed guards for the bus yards. They issued red badges to drivers to show the public they are legitimate.

"We are the ones keeping the state-run bus company together," said Abdul Munaf Khudhayer, a former mechanic turned driver.

Drivers such as Khudhayer are angry that U.S. troops appear uninterested in stopping looted buses, arresting renegade drivers and returning the double-deckers to the yards.

"We can't stop the looters because they will shoot us," said Hayder Abdul-Hadi, who until the war was the supervisor of the Sector 5 depot. "It makes me cry to see my buses in their hands."

On his bus, driver Alwan spoke little about his enterprise. He claimed to be legitimate but produced no identification.

What galls legitimate drivers such as Khudhayer is that Alwan used to be one of them before the war and is recognizable to passengers and former co-workers.

"Now he is a thief," said Khudhayer, who nonetheless waves at Alwan when they pass each other. "We know he's working for his own account, not for the good of Iraqis. He hasn't been to work in two months. The Americans should catch him and put him in jail."

But Alwan says the culprits are the U.S. military police. He blames them for impeding free enterprise.

"I hate these soldiers," he said, sneering at some American troops waving him along after he stopped to drop off passengers.

"They are rude. All they do is get in our way and cause trouble."

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services