Baghdad, Iraq — Merchants in this capital city's narrow-alleyed souks selling spices, tailored clothes, brass pots, carpets, and toothpaste are complaining about poor business.
They blame it on the Iran-Iraq war.
"Because of the blackouts, we have to close early," moaned one vendor sitting at the back of his cupboard-like shoe stall plastered with magazine photographs of the latest European fashions. "The tourists have also gone."
Some merchants, including barbers who will cut your hair at your own risk, continue to ply their trade after dusk in the eerie shadowed glow of flickering candles and hissing gas lamps.
Now in its fifth month, the dragging and indecisive Gulf conflict has begun to dampen public enthusiasm here.
Although morale among frontline troops remains high, there is growing dissatisfaction among the civilian population with the war and its economic drawbacks.
Outwardly, little indicates that Iraq is at war with Iran. The hotels of downtown Baghdad are crammed once again with foreign businessmen, mainly French, West German, and Australian. The asphalted desert highway from neighboring Jordan is one long traffic jam of trucks transporting consumer goods, food, bulldozers, and building materials.
And now that work has resumed, following the stoppages during the early days of the war, construction sites for ambitious office blocks, hotels, and factories bristle anew with moving cranes and sweating laborers.
Despite these appearances of a boom economy, however, the war is having its effects. The Iraqi capital and other cities suffer from long blackouts every day. Housewives are forced to stand for hours in the mud brought about by the winter rains at overcrowded distribution centers for rationed cooking gas and kerosene.
There is no rationing of gasoline, but automobiles are still forced to wait in queues at pumps that can only function when there is enough electricity.
Although no reliable figures are available concerning present oil production, the Iraqis are known to be exporting a limited amount via the Turkish pipeline. According to both Eastern and Western diplomatic sources, Iraq is also pumping crude oil to Syria despite poor relations between the two countries. Refined oil is then returned to Iraq by road, with Syria keeping some of it in payment.
Opponents of the minority Sunni Muslim regime of President Saddam Hussein also are making themselves felt. Occasional small-arms fire can be heard at night in Baghdad. Sources maintain that despite government surveillance and repression, Shiite Muslims, Christians, and Kurds deeply resent present policy.
In the north, particularly in Kurdistan Province, government and military personnel are often attacked by insurgents. As a result, officials and military personnel are reluctant to be seen in the streets after dark.
As far as could be determined during a recent three-day trip to the northeastern front, morale among Iraqi frontline troops is better than in the cities. Officers are boisterously confident and claim that only political orders from Baghdad have prevented them from advancing even deeper into Iranian territory.
If government reports from the front are to be believed, the war is going well for Iraq. Despite repeated attempts by the Iranians to break through Iraqi lines, they have made little or no headway. The Iraqis have managed to occupy additional Iranian territory over the past few weeks.
The Baghdad government is doing everything possible to galvanize public support. For hours on end, Iraqi radio and television broadcast tedious patriotic songs glorifying the leadership of President Hussein or show film clips of apparently victorious Iraqi military operations at the front.
Reminiscent of East European youth movements, children dressed in light blue or green paramilitary uniforms are regularly trooped out to acclaim the virtues of the Iraqi revolution with arm-jerking fervor.
Iraqi citizens are forbidden to talk with foreigners and must report all unavoidable conversations to the Ministry of the Interior. The Baghdad regime also strictly controls the foreign press. But despite all this, it is quite apparent that public unity is not quite what the government would prefer the outside world to believe it is.