Saddam Hussein's Economic Crime

DURING my visit to Baghdad at the height of the Iran-Iraq war, I was astonished to see a British tourist breakdancing on his head at the entrance to the now infamous El Rashid hotel. No one was paying attention, least of all the security guard. Hard to believe? No more so than the passion in Iraq's capital for bowling, with slick new alleys available in almost every hotel. Or the sight of an American diplomat playing tennis in the searing midday sun ``because otherwise you can never get a court.''

Then, of course, there were the weddings that took place every Thursday night, a veritable dance of fashion that would have put Beirut to shame in better days. Sixty-five newlywed couples celebrated during my stay, turning the marble mausoleum hotel into a festival of music and haute cuisine.

Counter to the popular impression that Iraqis suffered severe austerity during the war, the fact is that the quality of life for most Baghdadis - excluding the families of the tens of thousands killed in battle - wasn't bad at all.

In the first five years of the war, alone, Iraq depleted $37 billion from the foreign exchange reserves and to create an external debt of $20 billion, where none previously existed. But then there was the largess of Saudi and Kuwaiti coffers to draw upon. Tens of billions of dollars poured in each year, cleverly used by Saddam to make war as comfortable as possible for his burgeoning middle class.

The Iraqi socialist government managed to provide cradle-to-grave benefits that Marx never dreamed of, and to maintain them throughout the war. This included new cars for senior military personnel, of which there was an abundance, and free homes for those individuals who made ``distinguished contributions'' in their work.

Thus, I wonder if we might not be overestimating the readiness of the same middle class to endure long-term economic hardship, much less the pulverization of their bright shiny city by American missiles and bombadiers. The Iranians were reknown for their inability to hit a strategic target, apart from the local soccer stadium, which once took a hit at three in the morning prior to a game. In fact, much of the destruction wrought by Iranian missiles could have been mistaken for urban renewal.

Saddam wants his people to believe that right, justice, and the Arab world are on his side. But let's get serious. Hussein can control the Iraqi press and cut off air travel. But he can't stop his people from religiously tuning in to the BBC and even to the Voice of America. Moreover, it's still possible to telephone Baghdad from almost any place in the world, including, believe it or not, Tel Aviv. The Iraqi citizen may be blockaded, but not isolated, from outside news.

On the poor people of the world; that Saddam Hussein's crime stretches far beyond the boundaries of the Middle East, to the interior of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and even to Eastern Europe, where the oil bill could increase by over $2 billion in the coming year as a direct result of Saddam's escapade into Kuwait.

Tragically, the tens of billions of dollars that will now be spent on escalating oil bills and war machines of destruction, couild have meant survival to the impoverished of the developing world.

Who, after all, was underwriting the development institutions of Arab and African nations? Not Iraq. It was Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Surely these two countries should have contributed more over the decades, given their riches. Yet, without their sustaining support, tens of millions of Arabs and Africans will surely face destitution, illness, and death.

Saddam Hussein wants his people to believe that he is a knight on a white horse, carrying the banner of the ``little man.'' The truth is that he is trampling this little man to death under the banner of his own lust for money and power.

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