The Iraqi city of Kalar, south of Sulaymaniyah, has an odd nickname: “the Moscow of Iraq”. And some locals say that it got this name because there are so many Russian cars in the city. One of the most prominent of these is the UAZ-469, a sort of Russian military utility vehicle. The utility vehicle, which arrived in the country during a time of particularly good relations between Iraq and Russia – at the timealmost every Iraqi household had Russian-made products - was particularly suitable for travelling on the plains and highlands here. And as a result of its suitability for the terrain the UAZ-469 and its predecessor, the GAZ-69, were popular among locals for a long time, which was also the reason they continued to be sold here.
At a recent ceremony to celebrate renewed Russian-Iraqi Kurdish cooperation in May, Russian attendees were surprised and pleased to find the 70-year-old relics still on the roads.
But now, after being one of the only means of transport between various villages in this area for years, the Russian cars are disappearing. Local officials in the traffic department cannot confirm how many UAZ-469s or GAZ-69s are still on Kalar's streets but dealers say there are now only a few dozen left – the ones that are still here are still being bought and sold by locals. Prices vary but have been known to go as high as US$10,000 for one of the best kept examples in Kalar.
The cars hold a lot of memories for locals. “We used to all get in the car and drive around the city, singing out the windows,” says Araz Faeq, a teacher in his forties from Kalar. “When we were students we used to ride on the boot,” he recalls. “And there were a lot of these cars bringing guests to my wedding in my village.”
The Russian jeeps date back to the 1960s and most of them arrived as part of the Iraqi army, a result of long standing cooperation with Russia. In Kalar some of their owners have renovated them, changing engines and other parts as well as decorating them differently. Some owners have added remote locking and even air-conditioning.
Local man Fouad Karim is a big fan of the UAZ-469 and he believes a lot of people from elsewhere in Iraq are now coming to Kalar to buy the cars too, hence their gradual disappearance from the city.
But there are other reasons why the Russian-made cars are no longer so popular in the city. “These cars were especially manufactured for military purposes and for mountainous areas,” Karazan Majid, a spokesperson for the local traffic police, told NIQASH. “People are still using the 1960s models but they've actually been banned by the traffic department already.”
The cars lack basic safety equipment, Majid explained, and they're made of extremely thick steel and can be very dangerous if they're involved in an accident. In fact, he says, his department has asked that authorities compensate the owners of Kalar's UAZ-469s so that they will stop using them. Owners of UAZ-469s in other cities in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan, such as Sulaymaniyah, Erbil and Dohuk, had already received such compensation.
City officials in Kalar know that the old Russian cars are an important part of the city's culture. The municipality intends to name a newly paved street in the tourist district after the UAZ-469 and place the body of one of the cars in the street as a sort of memorial.
The mayor of Kalar, Ata Mohammed, confirmed these plans to commemorate the city's distinctive vehicle. But, as he told NIQASH, “unfortunately the project is on hold right now because of the financial crisis in Iraqi kurdistan”.
Right now the UAZ-469s are used mainly for special occasions like weddings and funerals, its memory kept alive in locals people's photo albums. One day though, Mohammed confirms, the old car, nicknamed “goat” by many owners, will get it's due in Kalar.