Friday, May 25, 2007


Credit cards come to Iraq

(NPR) - Four years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, credit cards have come to the country. At least one Iraqi bank is offering the service, unheard of during the Saddam era, to customers. But Iraq is still very much a cash-based society. Many say the find the cards more useful when they're out of the country. Iraqis refer to money as notebooks, because the bundles are so big. In Iraq, the U.S. dollar buys just over 1,200 Iraqi dinars, so going shopping and paying bills requires hauling around big stacks of local currency.
The banking system is no more sophisticated. Bank employees lug boxes stacked with 10,000 dinar notes to government offices to pay employee salaries. "For people that we know, we can take some risk and give credit card. For people who have no history we start with pre-paid," said Zaid Mahdi, who is in charge of business development at the Trade Bank of Iraq. He says his bank has issued 15,000 credit cards so far.
The Trade Bank has had to start from scratch in a country embroiled in war. "We have to know a client. Things are not like in the west. They just put your Social Security number and they know your credit history," Mahdi said. "We don't have that in Iraq yet." There's a massive billboard on one street corner in downtown Baghdad with the word "VISA" emblazoned on it. This is a typical sight in most countries, but in Iraq the sign, more often than not, elicits blank stares.
Mahdi says the bank has only three ATM machines operating in all of Iraq. Progress in the banking is slow, he says, but it is moving forward, despite the uncertain security situation. But it's more than just getting people to use credit cards. "You know there are sometimes problems buying things in the first place," said Ahmed Fadhil, a 26-year-old dentist. "If you want to pay with your debit card … you have to list your address. Sometimes the lists do not have Iraq ..."

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