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Iraqis Fear It Can Only Get Worse
Published on Thursday, February 14, 2002 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Iraqis Fear It Can Only Get Worse
U.S. threats come after sanctions ruined economy
by Hadani Ditmars
 
BAGHDAD, Iraq-- At Baghdad's central Shorja market, Um Ali, a widowed mother of eight, sells foodstuffs and soap, trying to scrape out a living in a ruined economy. She works seven days a week but brings home less than $30 a month.

"Our rations start to run out after the first 10 days," she said. "It's simply not enough to feed everyone in my family."

Let Iraq Live
An Iraqi man holds a banner asking for sanctions on Iraq to be lifted, while another carries a portrait of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2002, during a demonstration in Baghdad to mark the 11th anniversary of the bombardment of the al-Amirya civilian shelter by U.S. warplanes during the Gulf War. More than 300 civilians were killed at the shelter. U.S. officials said it was a military command center, and they did not know civilians were inside. (AP Photo/Jassim Mohammed)
For years, Um Ali -- and millions of Iraqis like her -- have lived under siege-like conditions produced by international sanctions. And with the Bush administration gearing up for a possible military confrontation with Saddam Hussein's regime, the siege is likely to get worse.

President Bush said yesterday that Hussein "needs to understand I am serious" about the option of an attack on Iraq as a way of bringing about what the administration has called a long-desired "regime change" in Baghdad.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell told a Senate committee that sanctions remained a key element in the U.S. strategy "toward Iraq to make sure that they do not succeed in their horrible quest to develop weapons of mass destruction."

To most of Iraq's 22 million people, that means more tragic hardship and economic collapse and grinding poverty.

Sanctions Take Toll

The statistics are grim: According to UNICEF, half a million children under 5 died in the first five years of the sanctions the United Nations imposed following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Today, though the sanctions have been eased slightly, malnutrition and water-borne diseases -- caused mainly by the bombing of Iraq's water, sanitation and electrical infrastructure during the 1991 Gulf War -- are killing 5,000 more children every month.

Iraq's health care system was once the envy of the Arab world. Now, its hospitals, private as well as public, lack essential medicines. Its schools, whose graduates used to be sent abroad on state scholarships, go without textbooks and basic supplies. Iraq used to donate money to less- developed countries. Now, educated Iraqis not favored by Hussein's clique emigrate en masse, desperate to get out of a slowly collapsing state.

Mass starvation has been averted -- so far. The 6-year-old U.N. "oil for food" program in which Iraq may sell oil in exchange for food, medicine and replacement parts for its petroleum industry has instead meant rationing of basic foodstuffs like rice, lentils, sugar, tea, flour, cooking oil and powdered milk, the only animal protein provided. There is no fresh produce.

About 37 cents a day per capita is allocated by the U.N. program for all nutritional, medical and other needs -- a paltry sum by any measure.

Critics say the Hussein regime is to blame for the Iraqi people's suffering, citing its bellicose behavior, its suspected continuing development of weapons of mass destruction -- specifically forbidden by U.N. resolutions -- and its diversion of resources to its own political supporters. There have been reports of Iraqi oil being sold to Syria for cash in defiance of the sanctions regimen.

Changes In Sanctions Proposed

But there is a growing awareness, even in the Bush administration, that the sanctions have failed to deter Hussein even as they have punished ordinary Iraqis. Reviving a plan he had publicly favored before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Powell suggested the U.N. Security Council, when it meets in May, might institute "smart sanctions," permitting Iraq to import a wider range of goods, while more closely targeting goods that could be used for the regime's military development plans.

Last week, for the first time in a year and a half, a senior U.N official visited Iraq to assess the oil-for-food program. Benon Sevan, the program's director, admitted that it needed changes, "but as long as sanctions are in place, there is no alternative."

That means an obscure U.N. panel -- Committee 661, named after the 1990 Security Council resolution instituting the original sanctions -- will continue to decide what can and can't come into the country.

Under the "dual use" designation -- referring to items that could have a military purpose -- the committee has put holds on such items as lead pencils, stethoscopes, pesticides, syringes and oxygen bottles. The panel also has blocked contracts for spare parts crucial to rebuilding Iraq's industrial base and water, sanitation and electrical systems.

Last year alone, $700 million worth of contracts were placed on hold, and the cumulative figure for the past several years is $5 billion.

U.N. sources who would not speak for attribution complain that the United States has stood by the strict sanctions in the hope that the Iraqi people will one day rise up against Hussein for causing their suffering.

Rather than driving his repressive regime from power, though, 11 years of sanctions may have further entrenched it.

Many argue that if the United States really wants to see democratic change in Iraq, it should simply lift the embargo. Many Iraqis now are literally too weak to resist the government, the argument goes, but they would demand reform if an economically stable middle class were to be re-established.

Smugglers Sell Luxury Goods

In the meantime, sanctions profiteers controlled by the regime continue to rake in profits and have become a powerful economic force. Areas of Baghdad -- like the ritzy smugglers' neighborhood of Arasat-al-Hindaye -- boast store windows crammed with big-screen TVs from Dubai.

Few Iraqis can afford such goods, given the dramatic devaluation of the national currency. In 1990, one Iraqi dinar was worth $3; now it takes 2,000 dinars to buy $1. The average monthly salary of a state employee is about $5 a month, or roughly the price of a bottle of imported Pert shampoo.

"We've turned Iraq into this giant service economy," said Ramsey Kysia, of the U.S. anti-sanctions organization Voice in the Wilderness, "where people are just trying to get these finished products -- either smuggled into the country or through the oil-for-food program -- and sell them to each other.

"Nothing's being produced here," he said. "What's happened is that you have the vast majority of the population in dire poverty because they have no way of supporting themselves just by selling all these goods that come into the country."

For the widowed Um Ali, the most urgent need is medicine, which for her is either unavailable or too expensive.

"My husband, a Gulf War veteran, developed liver cancer a few years after the war," she recalled. "The medicines he needed simply weren't available, and he died."

Um Ali's 13-year-old daughter has epilepsy, and the medicine she needs is rarely available because of the oil-for-food program's half-year contracts, mandated by the need for its renewal twice a year.

"The brands she gets change every six months," her mother said. "One month it's from China, another from Russia. It's hard for her to adjust each time."

Rats, Roaches Doing Well

A few yards away from Um Ali's market stand, a merchant named Khaled was doing a booming trade in rat and roach poison.

"I used to sell lentils and rice, but this is a much better business, especially in the last few years," he said.

Pests flourish because such municipal services as garbage collection and sewage treatment barely function in Baghdad, particularly in poorer areas.

Another booming business is the sale of kerosene lamps. Um Karim, 50, a housewife and customer, says there are power cuts "four or five times a day, and three to four times a night."

"Many power stations were bombed by the Americans, and the 661 Committee is putting holds on contracts for spare parts needed for repair," said Jabar Hamad, a local merchant. "The technicians at the electricity board are doing their best, but my business is taking off because the power cuts continue."

At an auction house in the once-middle class area of Mansour, families down on their luck sell their household goods in a desperate bid for cash to cover basics like food and medicine. Prized possessions, like antique carpets and gold-embossed lamps, sit next to more mundane items like bird cages and baby cradles.

The manager, a Mr. Hussein, said that before the sanctions, he had dealt in new furniture. Now, the market for second-hand pawned goods is huge.

Meanwhile, at the Baghdad book market, where there are few buyers for the many prized collections of Shakespeare's sonnets, Um Khaled, a 50-year-old Gulf War widow, shopped for textbooks for her young son. Although her son, Khaled, looked about 9, he is actually 14, having been dwarfed by malnutrition.

Scrounging For A Dictionary

Amid books as varied as a 1973 expose on the CIA published in Paris, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz's examination of the Iran-Iraq war and one tome titled "Marxism and Class Struggle," Um Khaled searches for a French dictionary. A teacher by profession and fluent in English, she must supplement her $4-a-month state salary with private tutoring.

"If it weren't for my brother in Germany who sends us money each month, I wouldn't be able to buy school books for Khaled," she said.

Iraq's publishing industry has been paralyzed by the sanctions. Many of the chemicals needed for book binding and other procedures are considered dual use, as are up-to-date scientific and other textbooks.

But Um Khaled clings to her belief in the importance of education, a remnant of her formerly comfortable, middle-class life. "I do not want my son to grow up in ignorance," she said with determination, firmly clutching the hand of her small, fragile boy.

A few hundred meters away, an official fleet of black Mercedes Benzes, complete with police motorcycle escort, cruised by. A high government official, no doubt. A siren wailed in the distance like a cry from some other world.

Canadian journalist Hadani Ditmars recently returned from a monthlong reporting trip to Iraq.

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