BAGHDAD — The sheep markets looked different this year: They were packed with customers buying animals to sacrifice in memory of recently lost relatives, but many people went home empty-handed due to the enormous demand and steeply rising prices.
There's an ancient tradition in Iraq of honoring deceased loved ones during the annual Eid al Adha religious holiday by donating part of a slaughtered lamb to neighbors and part to Baghdad's poor.
However, the demand for lambs has soared as Iraqis this week remember tens of thousands of people who died during the war.
Before the war, Iraqis who followed the ancient tradition would find plenty of animals at prices they could afford. This year, the prices skyrocketed.
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Many people took to making down payments to reserve their animals, a claim marked by the names of dead men painted on the lambs' wool.
"The mothers of the murdered would give their eyes" to bring back their sons, said Suad Jabbar Salim, 45, a Baghdad woman who bought five lambs this week. "Their sons are more dear to them now than they were when they were alive. All they can do is buy a sacrifice for them."
Salim and her mother saved money all year to buy lambs. Two of the relatives they remembered — Salim's cousin and brother — died in explosions in 2004 and 2006. Two lambs were for relatives who died of natural causes, and one was a religious sacrifice.
Other shoppers left Baghdad markets devastated when they learned that prices for the animals had risen over the previous year.
"It's difficult to see people come to us to buy and sacrifice for their loved ones but they can't afford it, and it's disappointing to see them turn around and go with disappointment in their hearts," said Mtasher Beddai, 40, who sold lambs in the Shaab neighborhood of northeast Baghdad. He cut prices to help some families, he said.
"We used to have only those who died of natural causes, and the martyrs of the Iran war," he said. "Now the dead people in Iraq have doubled because of the violence."
It's difficult to find a clear count of civilian casualties in Iraq. Iraq Body Count, a Web site that tracks civilian deaths in news reports, places the number at 89,600 to 97,828. Other estimates suggest far higher numbers, though they tend to involve surveys.
The Eid al Adha follows the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for Muslims and marks Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son to honor God.
Ammar Sabr, who ran the largest sheep market in Shaab, was one of the traders who turned away some customers this week. The cost of a lamb at his outlet climbed from 150,000 dinars — about $100 — last year to 225,000, about $150. Prices were even higher in central Baghdad neighborhoods such as Karrada and Yarmouk.
Sabr said he was making less profit on each sale than he had in the past. He said the costs reflected higher prices for feed and the elimination of price controls from Saddam Hussein's regime.
Tensions over the prices led to a shouting match at Sabr's market Tuesday morning when a man who was waiting for a lamb to be butchered called the livestock sellers "thieves."
At Sabr's pen, people could buy animals and slaughter them themselves or have one of half a dozen butchers kill and clean the animals on the street. Hooks held up the meat while the butchers worked.
"There is so much demand for lambs, and there are so many hurt people in Iraq," Sabr said, his boots caked with blood. "Last year I brought 200 lambs, and it was enough. This year I brought 600, and it wasn't enough."
"We used to be always comfortable, and we wouldn't get tired from this work," he said. "This year I'm so tired because of the demands. People came to buy with 150,000 dinars in their pockets, but I can't give them sheep for this price."
Salim said the market in sacrificial lambs showed that the war had prompted many Iraqis to turn their thoughts to death.
"Their perspective of life has changed," she said. "They look more to the afterlife. Their prayers have changed. What do Iraqis have to think about but death?"
(Hussein is a McClatchy special correspondent in Baghdad. Ashton reports for The Modesto (Calif.) Bee. Special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed to this report.)
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