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Violence fails to stamp out Baghdad's philatelists

Written by: Staff

BAGHDAD, July 5 (Reuters) They meet every Saturday in a small, sparsely furnished room above a telephone exchange in one of the most dangerous areas of Iraq's lawless capital.

The group of about a dozen men, mostly middle-aged, trooped into the room last week, passing under a simple sign above the door. Written in English and Arabic, it reads: ''Iraqi Philatelic and Coins Society, founded in 1951''.

Baghdad's only organised group of stamp collectors has stubbornly continued to meet in spite of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to remove Saddam Hussein, a raging insurgency and a low-grade civil war gripping the capital.

The society is not immune to the violence, however.

It has been forced to move its office twice and its numbers dwindled to about 30 after some members fled Iraq or were too afraid to attend meetings, a fact highlighted by the group's accountant who bemoans the drop in subscription fees.

The meeting place for their weekly auction is the society's rented ''headquarters'' on the first floor of a run-down two-storey building in Midan Square in downtown Baghdad, an area notorious for kidnappings, shootings and robberies.

''I never bring all my stamps to the auction, so that if I get robbed I never lose them all,'' says Salam Sabeeh, a balding 29-year-old former accountant whose passion for philately is undimmed, in spite of the difficulties of pursuing his hobby in one of the most dangerous places on earth.

He fears the bombs that daily rock the capital, but they have not stopped him from attending the society's meetings.

''I view this as a type of entertainment which helps to distract me from thoughts about the daily violence,'' he said.

''I was nine years old when my uncle first gave me a stamp album,'' he said, recalling how he would spend all his pocket money on new and used stamps.

His first set was a block of four issued in the late 1980s to commemorate the death of General Adnan Khairalla, Saddam's brother-in-law and boyhood friend who died in a helicopter crash.

Many Iraqis believe Saddam had him killed because he had grown too popular.

SADDAM A BEST SELLER ''I had paid only 600 fils to get them,'' Sabeeh said, pointing at the multi-coloured stamps mounted in a leather-bound album. One thousand fils is equal to one Iraqi dinar, and one dollar buys 1,480 dinars in post-war Iraq.

Some of his oldest stamps are those marking the coronation in 1953 of King Faisal II, Iraq's last, British-backed, monarch killed in a 1958 uprising by army officers.

The best selling stamps at the weekly auction are those of Saddam, either in benevolent or militaristic pose, which are also widely sought after by collectors in the Middle East.

The last Saddam-era issue was a Saddam University stamp on Feb.

5, 2003. The printing works were destroyed in the looting that followed the U S invasion.

There have been only two new issues of Iraqi stamps since the war, one in 2003 and another in 2006, marking the spring festival of Nawruz, says Sabeeh. The society mainly depends on stamps sent from abroad.

At last Saturday's auction, bidding was subdued in the oppressive summer heat which turned the meeting room into a sauna. The air conditioner was broken and the windows were thrown open to catch the slight breeze.

''Eighty-seven Iraqi stamps. Two sheets. They are in good shape,'' said a sweating Mohammed Taha, a 42-year-old engineer, holding up the stamps.

''Anyone interested?'' he asked, placing them on a wheeled, rectangular wooden tray and sliding it down the length of the table so that potential bidders could take a closer look.

''We start the auction at 3,000 dinars,'' said the tousle- aired, moustachioed engineer. ''3,500 dinars!'' shouted one bidder, ''4,000!'' countered another. The final bid came in at 7,500 dinars -- about .

''You got it,'' said Taha to the successful bidder, before moving on to his next lot, a block of six Saddam stamps.


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