BAGHDAD, IRAQ — INTERNATIONAL sanctions are forcing many Iraqis to lead a more austere life and cut their spending to basics. But for the wealthy elite, few things are beyond reach. Rich families still hold weddings at exclusive clubs, hiring expensive bands, and serving lavish buffets. Although the pastry shops are closed because of a sugar shortage, 10-layer cakes can still be found at wedding parties held in Baghdad's fashionable Hunting Club.
``They [the rich] have no problem. Even at times like these they can get everything,'' says a secretary. One hundred pounds of flour are sold for about 200 Iraqi dinar ($640) on the black market, equal to the average monthly salary of a civil servant.
As sanctions start to hurt, distinctions between the socioeconomic classes are becoming more distinct. Middle-class Iraqis worry they will be pushed down the social ladder.
The system of rationing of staple foodstuffs is viewed here as fair and adequate, but, except for the wealthy, it has become almost impossible to maintain the old standard of living, let alone improve it.
In Iraq, everything seems to be available, albeit at outrageous prices. Grocery stores are well-stocked with foodstuffs that had never graced their shelves prior to the takeover of Kuwait. Fine imported shampoos, canned soft drinks, processed cheese, salad dressings - a novelty to Iraqi groceries - and other goods that were bought or looted from affluent Kuwaiti stores, neatly line shelves in large and small stores.
Long daily queues for bread rations continue, while those with friends or relatives in Jordan receive supplies of the thin white loaves preferred by the Iraqis.
Almost three months after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Iraqis seem to endure well the economic blockade, but life has taken a slower and more restricted pace.
Iraqis have cut down on their outings. Many coffee shops have closed - there is not enough sugar for the coffee - but stands and small restaurants remain popular.
With only a trickle of customers, shopkeepers pass the time watching Egyptian and Jordanian television soap operas. These programs have always been a hit here and are becoming a favorite and affordable pastime among Iraqis in general.
Discoth`eques, nightclubs, and restaurants in Abu Nawas Street along the Tigris River and in first-class hotels are still open for the privileged and to entertain Western nationals held here against their will.
A newcomer to Iraq is struck by an apparent obliviousness to the dangers of war, as people go around doing their business in an atmosphere of eerie normality.
There is a blackout in the state-run news media and controlled press on reports of war scenarios and the continuous United States-led military buildup in the Gulf region. But many Iraqis - and not only the elite as is often reported - listen to Voice of America and the British Broadcasting Corporation's Arabic Service in the morning, tuning into Radio Monte Carlo's detailed news bulletin in the evening.
``If they wanted to attack, they would have attacked us at the beginning'' is a standard response from Iraqis of all walks of life, reflecting a widely held view here that the chances of war are receding as time passes.
This was not the case in the beginning, when news of the economic blockade and the military buildup created panic, which replaced the short-lived euphoria over Iraq's ``restoration of Kuwait.''
But now the Iraqis seem to have become resigned to the new reality and are trying to adapt. They do not hide their bitterness and frustration that their dreams of starting a new life after the end of the eight-year war with Iran were crushed.
``Just when we thought we could plan for a different future, our sons had to go to the front again,'' says an Iraqi housewife.
The most disturbing thing for many Iraqis is not how to endure the stringent sanctions, but a feeling that their lives are reduced to day-to-day basics.
``We cannot plan anything. We are not sure we can even dream,'' says Boshra, a young artist.
Although Iraqi society is still tightly controlled by security forces, people are becoming more open in their criticism of the government. They appear, however, to differentiate between the domestic policy - mainly restrictions on freedoms - and the current confrontation with the West.
``He decides everything, we are not consulted,'' says a saleswoman at a up-market boutique, pointing to a portrait of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But, like others who are disgruntled with restrictions on freedom, she argues that the West is seeking to destroy Iraq because it has emerged as a powerful Arab military state.
``The West does not want Saddam because he dares to stand up to them and defend Arab interests,'' she says. ``They do not care about our suppression here.''
Resentment of domestic policy does not seem to affect defiant mood of the Iraqis, who insist that they will not be ``defeated'' by the sanctions.
``We have to remember that Saddam is no Oxford economist or pseudo-Westernized intellectual. He is a man of the soil, and he understands his people's thinking and needs,'' says an Asian diplomat.