Suffering Iraqis hatred for Hussein intensifies

October 16, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Writer

BAGHDAD -- The Iraqi woman put her head in her hands and wailed.

"Oh, how I hate that man," she said, speaking of her country's president. "Someday, the people will take hold of him and kill him."

But not soon. Her fear of being named reflects as much.

Saddam Hussein rules over a cowed and sullen nation, too afraid to challenge him, too angry to forgive him, too poor to worry about anything but their next meal.

As his people are stripped of all but the bitterness of poverty, they watch new mansions rise, built for Mr. Hussein and his family. As they eat another meal of soup and tomatoes, they can ponder his fugitive habit of having seven dinners prepared for him each day in different places.

As they prowl in growing desperation for a simple aspirin for their child's fever, they can hear Mr. Hussein's proud exhortations about how the nation has stood up to America.

And if, after a day's work that earned them less than three pieces of bread, they still have energy for anger, they can choose who hurts them more: their own leader or the United States.

Four years after Mr. Hussein bullied his way into Kuwait, setting off the Persian Gulf war, the United States is keeping relentless pressure on this nation of 20 million through a strangling United Nations embargo.

There is no doubt it is working -- against the Iraqi people. Figures accepted by U.N. health officials suggest that there have been at least a quarter-million more deaths in the past three years than would have been expected without the embargo.

There have been a four-fold increase in the death rate, a shocking rise in infant mortality, chronic malnutrition and endemic disease. From hospital beds around the country comes the hollow look of hunger.

It also haunts street corners clogged by cars running on the only cheap commodity in the country -- gasoline. Thin boys in ragged clothes thrust a weary hand through open windows, or listlessly dab the windshield with a dirty cloth.

"They don't want money," said a Baghdad resident. "They want food."

"The overall priority of the Iraqi people is to survive," said a diplomat stationed here. "Not for 10 years [or] for 10 months. But for tomorrow."

For the United States, Mr. Hussein remains the embodiment of the menacing dictator. When he sends two divisions of his army toward Kuwait, as he did 10 days ago, the United States says he is warmongering.

When he withdraws and agrees to recognize the borders of Kuwait, as he did last week, U.S. officials suggest that he is lying.

When he grudgingly submits to the cease-fire terms for U.N. weapons monitoring, the United States says that more must be done before the embargo is lifted.

And every day Iraqis ask the same question:

"Why?" asked a taxi driver, truly pleading for an answer. "Why if America does not like Saddam Hussein do they hurt the Iraqi people? We will starve for 10 years, and he will never miss a meal."

'Pluck him out'

Most here believe America cannot see the distinctions between Mr. Hussein and his people.

"Why should 1 million starve for that one man? If the Americans would come down and pluck him out, everyone would cheer," grumbled a middle-class woman in a shopping district.

For most Iraqis, the American-led embargo has wrenched their daily economy. While Iraq has been barred from selling its only substantial resource -- oil -- the government has continued printing money, making it increasingly worthless.

Inflation of 1,000 percent has driven prices to extraordinary levels, while salaries have hardly doubled. A government clerk makes 3,000 Iraqi dinars a month, but that will buy only three chickens. Or one carton of cigarettes. Or one shoe.

The government provides a ration of staples -- rice, flour, oil, wheat -- designed to supply 70 percent of a person's obvious caloric needs. As of Oct. 1, the ration was cut by more than one-third.

Maged Abed Kadem, 35, tries to support four children on the day labor he can find at construction sites. His job at a bakery ended when the factory closed, unable to get enough sugar and oil.

His family is crowded into a narrow ground-floor room, barely the size of a hallway. The last time his family ate chicken was two years ago. Mostly they eat rice and eggplants and bread that turns black on an oven because of poor flour.

"Before the embargo, we had everything in the markets, and it was cheap," he said. "Now I can give my children nothing."

Struggle to survive

Baghdad has slipped into a siege of urban survival. Its residents have sold their gold bracelets, collected during prosperous years. Gone also are other luxuries: the air conditioner, furniture, carpets, the clothes.

"If you take into consideration their salaries and the prices, they should have died way back," said one diplomat.

"Anybody who has a private car works after-hours as a taxi driver," explained one Iraqi. "Others buy and sell things."

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