Iraq's new fight is for survival Under embargo, people feel like victims of war without guns

May 30, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Staff Writer

BAGHDAD -- This is the arithmetic of postwar Iraq: On her monthly salary as a teacher, Sadia Sa'ad can buy three scrawny chickens. Or two boxes of tea. Or maybe eight small fish.

She cannot do that and buy milk, or medicine, or fruits for her eight children. Seven-year-old Mohammed has not had new shoes in two years.

"What have these children done to deserve such a difficult life?" she asks plaintively.

Iraq, under the squeeze of an embargo clamped on after the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, is now a country whose people are watching themselves become poor. Its property wounds from the Persian Gulf war are largely mended, and its leader blusters on. But the majority of this once-middle-class country now exists below the world standards for destitution.

Prices for the most basic items have soared out of reach of most people. They eat half what they did three years ago. Health conditions have deteriorated, epidemics threaten, crime has increased, education has faltered.

"There is no doubt the general population is suffering," said Mohammed Zejjari, a Moroccan who heads humanitarian programs for the United Nations in Baghdad.

Most of these problems could be cured if Iraq resumed selling oil, its chief revenue source. But such sales are barred under the embargo. Without real revenue, the government prints money that has become increasingly worthless. Prices -- but not salaries -- have become hyper-inflated, rising 5,000 percent since before the war.

Iraq abruptly shut its border early this month, imposed a stiff tax on Iraqis leaving the country, and invalidated all 25-dinar bank notes more than three years old to try to stop a currency drain. The move made worthless millions of old dinars held by Jordanians and by Kurds in the north, and traders bringing in food and supplies now are even more wary of dealing with Iraq.

The government provides a ration, mostly rice and wheat, for about two-thirds of a family's needs. Soaring prices have put the remainder practically out of reach.

The United Nations has refused to relax the embargo because Iraq has not complied with all U.N. resolutions. And Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has refused to accept a provision that would let him sell some oil to buy food under strict U.N. controls while giving Kuwait part of the revenue.

"The West wants to strangle Iraq in order to change the leadership. They want a puppet regime," said Hamid Yusef Hamadi, Iraq's information minister.

If the point of the economic embargo is to topple Mr. Hussein, it has failed. By all accounts, he is more strongly in control than at the end of the gulf war.

In private conversations, many Iraqis say they despise their leader. But they resent the United States even more and applaud Mr. Hussein for "standing up to the Americans."

"The longer the sanctions go on, the more it will strengthen Saddam with his people," said a diplomat in the region. "They see the sanctions as being the fault of America and the U.N., not Saddam Hussein."

U.S. air raids in January, launched by President George Bush in his last days in office, and the failure of the new Clinton administration to improve relations have only deepened Iraqis' belief that there is a conspiracy against them.

"After the war there was no hatred whatsoever to the West. The people understood their government had made a mistake and the West taught it a lesson," said another diplomat. "But people don't understand why America is still bombing them. It has pushed people back to Saddam."

President Clinton has turned down the burner. Washington is being low-key about evidence of an Iraqi plot to kill Mr. Bush on a visit to Kuwait last month. It also is saying little about the arrest and eight-year sentence given American oil worker Kenneth Beaty for straying over the Kuwait border last month.

But as long as the embargo remains, the Iraqi people believe they are being personally punished by the West.

"What can I do?" asked a cleaning woman in an office, tears welling in her eyes. She now works three jobs to try to make ends meet, but "if I buy one kilogram [2.2 pounds] of meat, one kilogram of chicken and one kilogram of rice, my month's salary is gone."


Aid organizations and other countries remain uncomfortable about continuing the strict embargo. "If you use only the stick and not the carrot, it is counterproductive," said a European diplomat.

The embargo exempts food and medicine. But without permission to sell oil, Iraq argues it cannot pay for imports.

And when it has tried to bring in medicine, Iraqi officials claim they have been stopped by bureaucratic objections from the West in the United Nations.

"The policy of the U.S. is to kill Iraqis in a mass way, and kill our children," asserts the minister of trade, Mohammed Saleh al-Rawi.

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