Saddam's Survival in the Ruins
from World Press Review, July 1999
The Americans are bombing Iraqi positions? On the outskirts
of Baghdad, children are dying of malnutrition? Iraq's hospitals
lack medicines? In Latakia, a fine restaurant where the city's
upper crust dines, there is no sign of any of this, for the clientele
of this place in the fine suburb of Jadiriya are members of the
small class of Iraqis who lack nothing- except scruples.
These owners of luxury limousines are war profiteers and courtiers
around Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The sanctions introduced
to punish Saddam for invading neighboring Kuwait in August, 1990,
do not trouble the people in Latakia. Nor do the bombs still being
dropped by the American planes that Washington hopes will shake
the dictator's hold on power. So the regime's favorites celebrate
as if Saddam Hussein had not driven his nation into poverty. They
eat as people used to, when Iraq, with its enormous oil reserves,
was the economic miracle of the Arab world.
Until recently, enjoying such wealth was frowned upon in Baghdad.
Those who had profited from , the war preferred to ~ indulge in
luxury out R of the public eye. But now they flaunt the money
they make by cigarette smuggling, illegal oil trading, and black-market
dealing in food and medicine. These people seem to fear that every
party could be their last-that they are dancing atop a volcano-because
tomorrow the anger of the wretched people of Iraq could sweep
Saddam and his supporters away.
Except for jokes about Saddam, the new rich can dare anything.
They have made their money in rampant real estate speculation
or in dubious businesses dealing televisions, computers, and cameras.
The days when the police would arrest profiteers to keep them
in line-or even shoot some on the spot-are long past. The government
has accepted that the social gap has widened. "Two decades
of war, deprivation, and the indifference of the rest of the world
have destroyed the social fabric," says a government official.
"Now everyone thinks of himself."
The collapse of the currency has worsened the disaster. The
average monthly salary of a mid-level government employee-three
quarters of all those working work for the government-is 4,000
dinar, or $3.30. Even a short cab ride costs 300 dinar, and a
grilled chicken costs 5,000 dinar, or what a teacher makes in
The education system is at the edge of ruin. There are not
enough books or supplies. Child labor, formerly not allowed in
Iraq, is now the order of the day. Kids sell snacks, shine shoes,
scrub sidewalks, wash cars, or simply beg.
For a tiny sum, every Iraqi receives supplies of sugar, tea,
flour, meat, oil, soap, and detergent, but the monthly amounts
barely cover two weeks. And how long Baghdad will be able to provide
even this, given its apparently empty treasury, is not clear.
Iraq can now harvest just 30 percent to 40 percent of what
it needs from its farms, partly because of the worst drought in
memory. In spite of the United Nations' "Oil for Food"
program, humanitarian aid provides just $175 per capita per year.
According to official Iraqi statistics, since the embargo began
in 199(), more than I million Iraqis have died of malnutrition.
Heads of families that own a car often try to make it as taxi
drivers. Gasoline is comparatively cheap: One dollar buys about
13 gallons, but this is what a civil servant would work 1() days
to earn. The cars are rickety, for spare parts are not available.
Even basic engine components are classified as having military
use, so their import is banned by the UN. The embargo also limits
the numbers of replacement parts for turbines that can be bought,
so electricity generation is rationed. The current is cut off
twice a day-for three hours each-in Baghdad and other cities.
The national health service, once splendid, now exists only
on paper. The doctors at the hospitals, often the products of
the world's finest medical schools, continue to provide good diagnoses,
but patients have to bring their own drugs, and medicine is usually
available only on the black market, for dollars. As a result,
child mortality is especially high.
In order to survive, people are leaving Baghdad. It is easier
to find food and housing in the countryside. While threshers and
tractors stand idle because spare parts are difficult to find,
farmers using sickles and scythes are still able to harvest enough
wheat, barley, and potatoes to earn a small profit.
Iraqis have long believed that the West has condemned them
to their fate. Saddam Hussein's propaganda machine has told them
that the American-led embargo is the source of all their misery.
More recently, Iraqis are becoming disappointed in their Arab
brother nations. Aid from neighboring countries has diminished,
complains the head of the Red Crescent in Kerbela, a city in the
south. "Neither our fellow Shiites in Iran nor our fellow
Arabs in Saudi Arabia or the Emirates show any sympathy,"
the official says.
Kerbela is the center of Shiite opposition to the Sunni Saddam,
so the south has suffered more under his repression than other
parts of the country. In February, opposition Ayatollah Mohamad
Sadiq al-Sadr was assassinated, a killing apparently allowed by
those around Saddam. That set off the worst unrest in years, and
the region threatened to get out of Baghdad's control.
But even in Kerbela no one dares speak publicly against the
president. ~ he dictator, with his army of spies and agents, has
the country well in hand. On April 2X, the man who has thwarted
two American presidents celebrated his 62nd birthday. Saddam was
feted by parades and ceremonies through
out Iraq. For the biggest party, held in his native village
of Audsha near Takrit, the president brought in 5,00() foreign
guests, among them Arab and Eastern European politicians and intellectuals,
but also 150 Russian athletes and two Armenian football teams.
A huge portrait depicted the leader as a modern-day Nebuchadnezzar,
mounted on a chariot and shooting down American jets with his
bows and arrows.
Both the bombing and the embargo, contrary to Western expectations,
have strengthened, rather than weakened, the despot. The permanent
state of war is his basis of power, and he has turned the suffering
of his people into patriotic pride. "Saddam is showing everybody
what an Iraqi can do," enthuses a customs officer, Amr Amir,
at the Kuwaiti border.
Diplomats in Baghdad see the crass behavior of the war profiteers
as the "social explosive" that could destroy the regime.
The poor are bitter. "l could no longer watch while these
new-rich used the millions they earned with the help of Satan
to humiliate us," complains carpenter Ghassan Juman, who
is leaving Baghdad. But Juman still harbors the naive hope that
Saddam Hussein will "clean out that bunch."
Dieter Bednarz and Volkhard Windfahr, "Der Spiegel"
(liberal newsmagazine), Hamburg, May 24, 1999.