This is also why the Iraqi government has vowed to remain neutral in the conflict between the U.S. and its neighbour. Both exert considerable influence in Baghdad.

The Americans helped the Iraqis build a new government and a new army and have supported the country in its fight to quell Islamic State. Iran, on the other hand, provides political parties and militias with financial support. In addition to gas and electricity, it also exports food staples, fruit and vegetables to Iraq.

"The Americans aren't only punishing Iran"

That dependency is most visible in Najaf, where Trump's name is on everybody's lips as the root cause of all their troubles. "The Americans aren't only punishing Iran, they're punishing Iraq, too, because we are losing customers and money," says Said Ali Mossawi, a co-owner of a Najaf restaurant that usually caters to tourist groups. As they have been for months, the rows of tables are empty this lunch time.

Jewellery seller Ahmed Ali in Najaf (photo: DW/Judit Neurink)
Forced to adapt: Ahmed Ali, who sells precious stones for rings and jewellery in one of Najaf's many bazaars has seen his income fall by as much as 85%. Iranians favoured a special white stone that is almost transparent and can only be found in the holy city of Najaf, but the seventeen-year-old hasn't sold one for months now. "I have had to adapt," he says, pointing to the jewellery that now fills his shelves, which is designed to appeal to the tastes of pilgrims from other countries

Mossawi says he has lost over half his customers and has had to sack about 40% of his staff. "And I am not completely dependent on the Iranians. Imagine what it is like for those who don't work with Iraqis or pilgrims from other countries." Only the Iranians came in huge numbers and throughout the year. In the mostly empty streets around Najaf's holy shrine, some Lebanese women are sheltering from the sun, but Shias from countries like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and the Gulf States mainly visit during the religious festivals.

Not everyone in Najaf was happy with the hordes of people that flocked into their city, but nobody is complaining anymore. The exchange rate for the Iranian toman on which they grew rich has dropped as a result of U.S. policy and hardly any are now spent in Najaf. Skeletons of unfinished buildings clutter the city centre, where only the odd bus drops off groups of Iranian women covered in their black chadors.

"They even bring their own food and cook it themselves," says kebab shop owner Hamid Abbas, who has not had any Iranian customers for a while. "After Trump's decision, none of the Iranians eat in restaurants anymore." His income has fallen by 40%, but he remains hopeful. "When the problems are over for Iran, they will be over for us too."

Free entry visas and still no improvement

For 17-year-old Ahmed Ali, who sells precious stones for rings and jewellery in one of Najaf's many bazaars, the fall in his income may be as high as 85%. Iranians favoured a special white stone that is almost transparent and can only be found in the holy city of Najaf, but he hasn't sold one for months now. "I have had to adapt," he says, pointing to the jewellery that now fills his shelves, which is designed to appeal to the tastes of pilgrims from other countries.

Iraq has tried to stop the downward spiral by agreeing to give Iranians their Iraqi entry visa for free. Unfortunately, this measure has failed to bring any visible results, say those affected in Najaf. "In Iran, a chicken costs about 15 toman; here the price is over 100," explains kebab shop owner Abbas. But jewellery seller Ali, like many Najafis, hasn't given up hope just yet. "As soon as Trump allows them, they will come back."

Judit Neurink

© Deutsche Welle 2019

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