Muted voices on the street in Baghdad

People: Iraqis are braced for war with the United States - and aware that the regime is watching them closely.

October 20, 2002|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The spice merchant was standing by his open-air stall, which smelled strongly of curries and pepper amid the hyperactivity of a market where people inevitably gossip as well as shop. A government official, a "minder," was present for the conversation because that is what the government insists upon.

In his understated way, Tirgam Nashaat, the merchant, merely said what every citizen already knows: In their separate ways, the government and people of Iraq are preparing themselves for a new war with the United States and are resigned to it.

That is, business is down, Nashaat cautiously said. No one in this situation - the minder right there - could comfortably say anything more direct.

"The last five years it was good, in fact," Nashaat said. The Sharjah market, where his stall stands, was established 400 years ago when the Ottoman Empire ruled what is now Iraq. The good times of the past five years came thanks to the United Nations' oil-for-food program, which helped return foodstuffs and consumer goods to the economy.

"Now I'm being affected by the problems," he went on. "The Americans want inspections. They want to strike Iraq; that is what I'm hearing."

Everyone seems to have heard. On Karada Street, a more prosperous part of the city, another merchant motioned for a clerk to close the glass door so he could ask a few questions in private. No official was there, but the atmosphere was stifling. A sandstorm that turned the morning sky a sickly yellow had knocked out the electricity and deprived everyone on the street of air conditioners and fans.

How old, he wanted to know, is President Bush?

Does he have a military background?

He and his friends listen regularly to short-wave radio broadcasts of the Voice of America and the British Broadcasting Corp., he said. He is well-informed, perhaps better than most Americans, about details of the congressional resolution authorizing Bush to use force against Iraq. Yet any new scrap of information that might explain the mysterious giant, the United States, would be welcomed.

Three weeks ago, he said, he began stockpiling gasoline and water.

"This is about greediness for oil," Camila Jellah, an elementary school teacher shopping back in the Sharjah market, said to the government translator. In years past, the political reality created by this authoritarian regime would have demanded that even a shopper interviewed at random would reflexively add extravagant praise of President Saddam Hussein. Iraqis praised their president more than their children. Jellah, though, said nothing of the president.

"Just leave the Iraqis alone," she said. "What we have, our infrastructure, our country, you want to destroy."

Impoverished shadow

Effects of the last war are still in plain view. Twelve years after the United Nations imposed economic sanctions to punish Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait, and 11 years after a broad coalition led by the United States defeated Hussein's army there, the country remains an impoverished shadow of its former self.

Of all the oil-rich Arab states, before the 1990 invasion, Iraq alone could boast of having nurtured a thriving middle class. Literacy rates were the highest in the region. Infection rates from tuberculosis, measles and other preventable diseases were among the lowest. Baghdad itself, a city of more than 5 million people, was a gaudy showcase of construction projects.

The middle class - teachers, doctors, government officials - is now working class. For her work in the classroom, an experienced teacher can at best earn about 50,000 Iraqi dinars a month, about $25. A teacher just starting out will make less - $5 a month.

A pound of bananas at the Sharjah market costs about 50 cents. A pound of limes, about 25 cents. There is rent to pay, electricity, clothes and the needs of children. So middle-class Iraqis hold second jobs as cashiers, third jobs as taxi drivers. The worst off, having long ago sold their jewelry and carpets, resort to selling food on the sidewalks.

Stores have DVD players from China stacked to the ceiling, men's suits made of English wool, cheap plastic sandals, beauty products from France. For $10, two people can dine on endless courses of chicken or beef in a comfortable restaurant. But that has moved out of reach for a teacher.

Children, too, are poorer. UNICEF reports that 20 percent of the children it has screened this year are malnourished. That percentage is more typical of nations suffering from drought than one rich in oil. The immunization rate against measles dropped to less than 30 percent last year from more than 90 percent in 2000.

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