Iraqi's sweet sorrow: Bomb sniffers detect his perfume

06/24/2009 2:14 PM

06/24/2009 3:32 PM

BAGHDAD — It would be futile to try to pinpoint the person in Baghdad who's suffered the most during six years of war and sectarian violence.

However, it's safe to say that Malik Farhan, a 33-year old perfume distributor, is a leading candidate for that dubious honor. As he tries to deliver fragrances around the Iraqi capital, he finds himself spending an inordinate proportion of his life behind the bleak gray blast walls of the checkpoints on almost every major street of the city.

The trouble, according to Iraqi officials and company employees, is that the wand that Iraqi soldiers use at the checkpoints to detect explosives seems to have an unerring attraction to shampoo and soapsuds. Nothing, however, sets off the detectors the way personal fragrances do.

"They stop us every time," Farhan said with a resigned shrug. "There's nothing we can do."

The problem is that some "cheaply manufactured perfumes and some cosmetics" contain trace amounts of a powerful explosive called RDX, according to an e-mail from Jim McCormick, the exports director of ATSC, the British firm that makes the wands.

The wands use something the ATSC Web site calls "electrostatic ion attraction" to detect hidden explosives. A soldier with a wand scans cars that pass through a checkpoint. If the device sniffs trouble, the driver is directed behind a row of concrete blast barriers for a more thorough search.

"The vast majority of the people we stop, it's because of their perfume," said Jasim Hussein, a National Police officer who was wielding a wand at a checkpoint in central Baghdad.

"Most people now understand it's what gets them searched, so they don't use as much," fellow officer Hasan Ouda added.

Cutting back on perfume, however, can be a real sacrifice in Baghdad, where a splash of fragrance is an oasis in a sensory desert in which almost everything — the ground, the buildings, the sky during sandstorms and anything left outdoors for more than 20 minutes — is the color of sand.

No amount of self-restraint would solve Farhan's problem, however. He started his delivery business in the late '90s, long before the wands appeared last year. For him, delivering gallons of perfume is a matter of economic survival.

The commute from his home to his shop takes everyone else 15 minutes, Farhan said. For him, with a trunk full of merchandise, it's an hour and a half each way.

Standing behind the counter of his shop, in front of floor-to-ceiling shelves packed with wholesale-sized bottles of the latest French scents, Farhan said he got stopped even when he wasn't hauling fragrance. "It seeps into the fabric of my clothes, even into my skin."

Two months ago, Farhan and some other perfume delivery drivers begged the security forces to recalibrate the wands to ignore their products. The change lasted for about two days, Farhan said, before the security forces changed them back.

ATSC's McCormick declined to give any more details about the devices or to respond to critics who claim that they don't work. "I will take this one on the chin," he said, rather than risk revealing security details.

A man who answered the phone at ATSC's office in Britain said the detector came with a series of cards, each programmed to identify specific substances. It's possible to remove the RDX sensing card, he said, but everyone who's using the device in the Middle East chooses to leave it in.

The man, who wouldn't provide his name, said it's "better to have a false alarm than to miss a real explosive."

However it works, the wand doesn't do much for the popularity of the officers on the street, who say they're forced to search every sweet-smelling soul who rolls past.

"Our major issue is with the perfume," acknowledged a high-ranking Ministry of Defense official, who asked that his name not be used because he isn't authorized to discuss security matters with the media.

However, he confirmed that the vast majority of the people who get searched in this city of about 7 million are stopped because of how they smell.

"People complain, but so far they have been very cooperative," he said. "They understand that this is for their safety."

Only about 30 percent of the checkpoints in Baghdad have the devices, the official said, but the wands routinely detect firearms. When they first came into use last year, they detected several explosives-rigged cars, whose drivers detonated the bombs when security forces approached, he said.

A bomb went off a few blocks from Farhan's shop Wednesday, hours before a reporter came to interview him for this story. Five people were seriously injured in the blast.

So Farhan takes the harassment in stride. He spends his days pulling over, popping the trunk and trading jokes with the guards about the absurdity of his situation.

"What else can we do?" he asked.

(Dolan reports for The Miami Herald. Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent in Baghdad.)

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