Embargo hurts Iraqis, not elite

Sun Journal


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- In 1957, throngs of Iraqis wildly cheered the royal regent, Crown Prince Abdul Illah. At one ceremony opening a Tigris River bridge, they lifted his Bentley car on their shoulders in adulation.

A year later, they shot the crown prince, dragged him through the streets of Baghdad on ropes, and hung him to eviscerate his corpse.

Saddam Hussein was cheered wildly by adoring throngs of Iraqis this week. He claimed a 99.96 percent victory in Sunday's referendum on his presidency. There was much adulation.

But as the monarchy learned in 1958, not all is what it seems in Baghdad. It is a place of paradoxes.

Fancy cars whiz past modern buildings and markets are plentifully stocked, but most Iraqis cannot afford to buy. Health officials fret that the water system is collapsing, and nearly one in three children is severely malnourished.

Public hospitals have no anesthetics for operations and doctors have no suture thread because -- they say -- of the United Nations embargo against Iraq.

But private hospitals have ample supplies for those who have the cash.

Mr. Hussein has absolute power and not a word is heard publicly against him.

Yet he hides from the people and is a virtual recluse. He made no public appearance before or after his referendum victory.

Despite a war, U.N. sanctions, rumors of an army revolt and defections from the ruling family, Iraq seems enigmatically static.

Mr. Hussein still has a strong grip on power, and recent predictions of his demise seem like the West's wishful thinking.

His people still are suffering and the economy remains haywire. U.N. sanctions imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 seem no closer to being lifted.

'Situation is worsening'

"The situation is worsening," said Mohammed Zejjari, the U.N. coordinator for humanitarian affairs in Baghdad. Added Lucielo Ramirez, head of the World Food Program: "We estimate [that] out of 20 million Iraqis, abut 4 million are vulnerable to food deprivation."

An Iraqi family sat down to dinner as celebratory gunfire rattled windows at the announcement of the first results of Mr. Hussein's victory Sunday.

Their meal was a mix of tomatoes, potatoes and onions. They rarely have meat.

"This has become a nation of vegetarians," said the head of the World Health Organization in Iraq, Habib Rejeb.

The trade embargo largely blocks the sale of Iraq's chief as set, oil. Without that income, inflation has hit Iraq with a vengeance. An Iraqi dinar was worth $3 before the invasion, but now $1 buys 2,600 dinars on the black market.

Those on fixed incomes, including what was once a large middle class, find their monthly salary too meager to buy even one meal.

"We are embarrassed now," said a woman. "We cannot even ask a guest if they want coffee."

The puzzle is that the whole country has not collapsed. The regime apparently had huge stashes of money or other assets.

It is using that to supplement the small revenues from legal oil sales to Jordan and illegal oil smuggling to Turkey and Iran, say observers.

And what was once a modern, affluent society is slowly wringing out its last reserves. The middle class, proud of its Westernized homes, now strip them bare to escape the grasp of destitution for a few more days.

This is the love-worn chattel of desperation: easy chairs and tablecloths and stoves, children's toys and clothes, and a sewing machine. The furnishings stand crowded on an open nTC auction lot. They seem naked, almost embarrassed, plucked from the homes they once made comfortable, and set out on a concrete yard to be handled and inspected -- and rejected -- by strangers.

In every sale, there is a buyer. Those with money are smug with satisfaction as the pleading auctioneer goes lower and lower.

Time to buy carpets

"It's a good opportunity to collect Iranian carpets," said a man at one auction, who would not give his name. "My wife and I have bought six or seven. Fifteen years ago, one cost us 80 dinars-- about $240. Now it costs us $5 or $6. For me, it's so cheap."

The irony of the economy is that anyone with access to U.S. currency, such as traders, can live grandly on $100 a month. Iraqis with only dinars find a monthly salary virtually worthless.

Those who can, leave. Iraq once imported workers. Now queues of Iraqis line up at the Libyan Embassy hoping to replace expelled Palestinians there. The country is experiencing a brain drain as professionals abandon their government jobs to try to make a better living.

But ordinary Iraqis must pay 200,000 dinars at the border, a large sum. Anyone with an advanced degree must post a 1 million dinar bond for any trip out of Iraq, to ensure that they return.

"All I want to do is get my degree and say goodbye to Iraq," said a psychology student. "There is no future here."

The embargo has taken a huge toll on hospitals. Medicine and food are exempt from the trade ban, but Iraqi health officials say they have no money to buy supplies.

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