BAGHDAD — Business has never been so good for Iraq's printers in the runup to the March 7 election, but the boom has its own headaches in a country short on printing presses and rife with religious sensitivities.
"In two weeks, I've pocketed what I would normally make in six months," says Omar Hamid, owner of the Al-Sima printing press in central Baghdad's Al-Mutanabi neighbourhood.
"I'm very happy with democracy. If it were up to me, we would have elections every year," the 31-year-old adds with a smile.
The parliamentary election is likely to generate around 10 million dollars for the country's 500-odd printing press owners, including six million dollars for the 150 or so in Baghdad alone, printers say.
Demand has been so high since the campaign kicked off on February 12 that Hamid has temporarily suspended printing calendars, books and office supplies, normally the mainstay of his business.
"I've been printing campaign materials for 50 candidates across the political spectrum," he says.
It is a far cry from the last parliamentary elections, in 2005, when rampant sectarian violence meant taking on certain clients could jeopardise a printer's safety.
Hamid recalls how he only printed campaign materials for Sunni candidates because Sunni armed groups controlled the neighbourhood, a situation that was common at the time.
From 2005 to 2007, despite the US military presence, armed groups effectively ruled Baghdad and the capital's historic centre was in the hands of Sunni rebels and Al-Qaeda. Those who disobeyed them faced almost certain death.
The country's printers are now experiencing difficulties of another kind.
"I am under pressure because the candidates waited until the last minute," Hamid says, almost shouting over the din of his printing presses.
"They wanted to know their rank on their party list and be sure that they were not barred from running because of links to the Baath party."
He was referring to a controverisal decision by the Justice and Accountability Committee to bar 456 candidates with alleged links to former dictator Saddam Hussein's Baath party.
Close to Hamid's printing shop, the Al-Qama graphic design firm is also hard at work. While large political parties have produced their own campaign posters, smaller groups and individual candidates often give the job to businesses like Al-Qama.
Aamer Ajami, who co-owns the company with his three brothers, says a candidate recently entered Al-Qama's offices with nothing but a photograph and a pile of cash.
"He gave us carte blanche with just one request... that we find photos of a school or a hospital and say on the posters that he built it," says 31-year-old Ajami, who learned graphic design in Jordan.
That level of responsibility has led to problems.
A Shiite candidate, Sheikh Hussein Salman al-Maraabi, refused an Al-Qama delivery because it showed a woman dressed in black, as a sign of mourning, with her bare hands raised in the air.
"He said to us 'We are Muslims, how dare you print pictures of women whose hands are not covered in gloves,'" Ajami says.
Sunni candidates, meanwhile, have their own concerns.
The National Concord Front forbids female candidates from publishing their photos, and Ajami's younger brother Khaled says for one of them, Faiza Ahmed, he replaced her picture with that of a craggy-faced farmer.
"With the (Sunni) men, we committed a different blunder. We printed a photo of a weeping woman with a black headscarf. But she was Shiite, and Sunnis wear white headscarves," the 27-year-old explains.
Would-be MPs are also battling with new rules from the election commission -- they can no longer simply paste their campaign posters onto walls, and must instead use pins to affix them, or use more expensive canvas tarpaulin.
"One canvas poster measuring 2.5 metres (2.7 yards) by six metres costs around 225 dollars," says Amer Hussein, the owner of the Dar al-Azdika printing press. "It's expensive, but even the small candidates are asking for it."
Sitting in Hussein's waiting room is Laith Reza of the Movement for the Future of the Self-Employed, a small, largely unknown party fielding 64 candidates in Baghdad.
"The campaign is costing us 50 million dinars (43,000 dollars), and hopefully we will have one member elected," he says.
Concerns aside, business remains brisk for the capital's printers, with 39-year-old Hussein even turning people away. "I have stopped taking orders. I cannot deliver on them before the elections."
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