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Iraqi Embargo's Unknown Victims

A politically moderate professional class is cut off from the West

By Barbara Nimri Aziz. Barbara Nimri Aziza New York-based anthropologist and writer who frequently visits the Middle East, including Iraq, is finishing a book about the Arab experience in the Gulf war. / May 30, 1995

THE embargo doesn't hurt Saddam Hussein, only the people'' is the refrain of opponents to the United States policy of maintaining the United Nations embargo on Iraq. What we need to ask is who is really hurting or benefiting from the embargo, and who among these groups of victims matters.

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Obviously, the Iraqi dictator enjoys luxuries regardless of sanctions, and new classes are profiting from shortages. A little-known professional class is, however, among the unknown victims of the sanctions. These women and men are considered moderates, and they are the potential builders of any friendly democracy in Iraq.

To evaluate the worth of maintaining the trade embargo on Iraq, one has to recognize the effects of the sanctions at many social and economic levels.

The economic crisis created by the embargo is so invasive that Iraqi society today is very different from what it was five years ago. A social upheaval is under way. It may not produce the military revolt Western leaders hope for. Yet the social flux can still create new and unpredictable elements that will shape the country.

For example, partnerships are emerging between wealthy farmers and smugglers profiteering from shortages. Then there is Iraq's large middle class, an educated secular community. It is in disarray. Some of its members are moving closer to the government, where they hope to secure whatever perks their loyalty can bring. Others are joining crime rings. Organized groups are emptying the nation's museums and selling their treasures abroad. Corruption in Iraq's bureaucracy is widespread. It was rare before the war.

Young people are embittered. Many feel more injured by the present Western policy than by their own tyrant. Whatever ideals and hopes their parents imbued are gone. Indeed, if Iraqi youths move in any political direction, it may be toward Saddam's Baath Party. Cynicism creates strange bedfellows. For the present, the young indulge in whatever pleasures they find to divert them from daily hardships. They welcome imported videos and the ''new wave'' music that has sprung up, promoted by a TV station opened by Saddam's son, Udai.

Entire classes are emerging or disappearing in the prevailing chaos. Because of severe food shortages, Iraq is attempting to boost its once-declining agricultural sector. This effort, partially successful, has created a class of wealthy farmers. For each new rich man, perhaps a hundred small-scale farmers are moving into poverty. They become virtual sharecroppers, or they join the military or the smugglers.

Meanwhile, successful farmers are reaping huge profits. They have built villas and enjoy a conspicuous lifestyle in the cities. Old Baghdad families who take pride in their sophistication describe these former villagers as religiously conservative and uncultured. It is not a completely inaccurate description, and one can already feel this rural presence in the cities.

What most disturbs some Iraqi observers is the unpredictability of this new class. Its political loyalties are untested. And neither the Iraqi leadership nor Western experts can assess its future role in the balance of power. These farmers could organize themselves in a tribal system. If they do, lineage solidarity would prevail over other kinds of alliances. With their swift investments in Baghdad, these farmers are likely to remain high in the economic order even if the embargo ends tomorrow and food prices drop.