Ten years later, Iraq suffers proudly

Years of sanctions have left Iraq's economic structure in a shambles, but the resolve of its people seems undented.

Wearing an artfully trimmed goatee and a shirt labeled "Versace," Hazim Dawood is out for an evening stroll along the magnificent illusion known as Baghdad's Karrada Street.

Sidewalk vendors neatly display everything from white doilies for the table to black polish for the shoes. The gold shops glitter, the clothing boutiques are spare and elegant, and the electronics stores beckon Baghdad techies.

Standing here, one can hardly believe that Iraq has been the subject of an international trade embargo for more than a decade. The televisions are from South Korea, the cardigans from Syria, the razors from Turkey.

"A number of people around the world think it is not right that America continues to blockade Iraq," explains Mr. Dawood, who studies mechanical engineering in Baghdad. So the embargo is faltering and life is good here - or so it seems.

The reality is that despite the profusion of consumer goods in Iraqi shops and triumphant pronouncements about the crumbling US-led sanctions, the structural effects of the embargo are proving profound and hard to repair. A decade of near-isolation may be engendering support for radicalism, but political thinking is hard to measure in Iraq, where everyone questioned during a week-long visit voices support for President Saddam Hussein.

For the West, and particularly the US, the sanctions policy may yield a host of unanticipated consequences. "You think all this suffering is not going to give the Iraqi people the right to get compensation?" asks Abdul Razaq Al-Hashemi, a former cabinet minister who runs a state-funded organization that promotes Iraqi ties with other countries. "Believe me, Iraq will get every compensation."

Objectives of the embargo

The intent of the embargo - as defined after the Gulf War in 1991 - was to force Mr. Hussein to allow UN inspectors to destroy Iraq's capability to develop biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, and the means to deliver them. A less obvious goal, revealed in the comments of some US officials, was to use economic hardship to turn the Iraqis against their leader.

The first mission was at least partly and perhaps fully accomplished, but a 1998 impasse over inspections resulted in the departure of the inspectors and a 70-hour bombing campaign against Iraq conducted by British and US forces. Since then the inspectors have not returned.

The second mission seems to have failed. Diplomats and other observers inside and outside Iraq say Hussein's political standing is firmer than it has been in years. Reports of the Iraqi leader's ill health have appeared in recent weeks in the Arab press, but Iraqi officials deny that Hussein is anything but entirely fit.

While it is obvious that Iraq is doing large amounts of trade - much of it under a UN program that allows the country to use oil revenues to buy food and humanitarian supplies - it is also clear that the country has a long way to go to catch up to its former self.

Grim statistics

There is no question that the embargo, aggravated by Iraqi government priorities that favor the elite over the poor, has been a disaster for most Iraqis. In the years from 1984 to 1989, the chance that an Iraqi child would die before reaching the age of 5 were 56 out of 1,000; in the period from 1994 to 1999, these grim odds had nearly tripled to 131 out of 1,000, according to a recent international survey led by UNICEF.

The restaurants and markets of Baghdad and other cities are full of plenty, but the country's economic infrastructure is in sad shape. In 1998 Iraq produced less than 15 percent of the number of eggs it produced in 1989, before the sanctions, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.

It can't be measured in statistics, but the decade-long embargo has afflicted the Iraqi soul. Dawood doesn't hesitate when asked to specify the embargo's worst effect on his life: A little nephew died in 1994, he says, because of a lack of medicine for a stomach illness.

As UN and Iraqi officials struggle with the complexities of rebuilding what was once one of the most advanced economies in the Middle East, diplomats worry about how the "sanctions generation" will mature. The "embargo is generating radicalism," says one European diplomat here, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

As a result of sanctions, millions of young Iraqis have grown up amid economic and educational deprivation that the government has blamed on the US and the UN. The result is a significant segment of the population that is uninformed and alienated from the West, this diplomat says, adding that "the real menace [of the embargo] is that Iraqi society is destroyed."

The average Iraqi's attitude

At a Baghdad eatery on the banks of the Tigris River, after a succulent meal of fire-roasted fish, an Iraqi teacher sums up the attitude of his nation. "The Iraqi people," he says, "think that yesterday was better than today and that today is better than tomorrow."

Iraqi officials, however, prefer to emphasize their victory over the US-led sanctions, rather than to dwell on the negative effects of the embargo. Nizar Hamdoun, Iraq's deputy foreign minister, even notes that the sanctions have produced "some positive outcomes, particularly in terms of self-sufficiency."

Other Iraqi observers cast the situation as a sort of global repudiation of US policy here and elsewhere.

"The people of the world are waking from the false dream of the 'new world order,' " says Mr. Al-Hashemi, the former Cabinet minister. In the Middle East, he adds, "the people of the region are waking from the false dream of the peace process ... and agreements with Israel."

Crumbling sanctions

The promise was that accession to American ideas about human rights, democracy, and free markets would bring universal happiness under a US umbrella, Al-Hashemi asserts. But the "new world order" has instead featured a US government that protects Israeli interests over Palestinian needs and a campaign of sanctions against Iraq that Al-Hashemi equates with "genocide."

For whatever reason, many nations are frustrated with the sanctions policy. Iraqi officials say that more than 100 flights - many bearing deal-hungry businesspeople - have landed at Saddam International Airport since the middle of last year.

Iraq's burgeoning trade, within and without the UN's oil-for-food program, has dramatically improved the ability of most Iraqis to get the food and medicine they need. But a senior diplomat here notes that turning around the child-mortality rate will require substantial investments in Iraq's ability to produce clean water, adequate supplies of electricity, and effective sanitation.

The UN is aiming to organize such improvements using oil-for-food funds, but recent cuts in Iraq's oil production mean that less money will be available for spending on infrastructure.

And US and British suspicions about Iraq's weapons mean that any sort of technology has a hard time making it through the UN committee that oversees how the oil-for-food money is spent.

Tun Myat, a Burmese official who is the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, says the committee has approved the purchase of pesticides, but not the sprayers needed to apply them. Irrigation pipes have been approved, but not the submersible pumps needed to move the water through them. "What good are the pipes without the pumps?" he asks.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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