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 a month.

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.


Dictators