In Iraq, a winter of discontent

Tomato prices triple in the past two months as Baghdad families struggle to find work and keep shops open.

Thameer Jabar doesn't know if he's grateful or angry for the US invasion of Iraq. He was elated when Saddam Hussein's regime fell, and imagined a better future. But now all he's certain of is that this is the hardest winter in memory. Prices have never been so high, life so hand-to-mouth, or fears for his three children so great.

"We don't know who to blame,'' says Jabar, who at 34 looks a good decade older and whose father was executed by Mr. Hussein's regime in 1989 for membership in a Shiite political party. "The problem started with Saddam - he kept the country at war for my whole life. But now we're in the American era, and life has never been so dangerous. I don't want him back, but sometimes I think it was a better time."

Iraq's bleak winter has always been the toughest time for the country's poor. There is less construction work for the legions of day laborers like Mr. Jabar and kerosene heating costs are heaped onto daily expenses. But this winter, prices have surged as distribution of subsidized oil products has collapsed under the weight of insurgent attacks. The country's roads have grown more dangerous and the border with Syria - which exports vegetables to Iraq - has been closed since early November.

As the country turns toward elections on Jan. 30, tough economic conditions have left millions of Iraqis uncertain about the future. But while most say they worry about prices and unemployment, they provide a single, one-word answer when asked about their biggest concern: security.

"I'd accept this situation if only some leader comes in who can stop the violence,'' says Jabar. "Security is the only thing we need."

Jabar's wife Hannah Jassim says the price of potatoes has doubled in the past two months, and the price of tomatoes has tripled. A can of cooking gas, which is officially available at the subsidized price of 250 dinars (20 cents), now costs 10,000 dinars ($9) from a black market that has grown as US and Iraqi forces have been diverted away from basic security to fighting insurgents.

Kneeling on the straw mat that covers the cold concrete floor of his family home, Mr. Jabar says there's little construction work these days, and he's happy to get two jobs a week. The family is fortunate because Mrs. Jabar has a job at the Transportation Ministry that brings in $100 a month. Even so, she's considered quitting. "I worry about the suicide bombs - every morning I make sure to kiss the children when I leave because I'm afraid I won't see them again."

While that may sound melodramatic, there have been three suicide bombings on the roads near their house in the past two months. A short way up the road, blackened engine parts are evidence of the most recent attack, a Jan. 2 suicide bombing that killed four foreign contractors.

And the family itself has been touched by tragedy. Mrs. Jabar's policeman brother was murdered in September. A black BMW pulled up alongside his car and riddled it with bullets. "He looked for work for months, but couldn't find anything safer, so he joined the police,'' says Mrs. Jabar. "He'd promised me he was quitting at the end of September. He was just holding on for a 100,000 dinar ($70) bonus due at the end of the month."

Haider Ali, a greengrocer in central Baghdad, says business has been awful this year. Farm prices have surged as supplies of subsidized fuel for tractors and transport have vanished. "We complain to the farmers, but they say they have no choice. My best customers used to come every day. Now I'm lucky to see them once a week."

Mr. Ali says his income has been cut in half, to about $200 a month. In the summer, he would drive to a wholesale market on the outskirts of Baghdad before dawn, but now bandits and kidnappers have made that too dangerous. "I get started after 7 now,'' he says. "The risks are just too great."

It's hard to find an Iraqi family that hasn't been touched in some way by the war and its aftermath.

To make matters worse, families have been given new cause for worry after the US military unintentionally dropped a 500-pound bomb on a house in a northern Iraq village on Saturday, killing at least five.

The Farhut family was turned upside down by the US invasion.

Sabah Farhut, a father of 10 between the ages of 3 and 21, owned an old municipal bus that plied Baghdad's roads. Parked in Dora, a Sunni neighborhood that saw fierce fighting as the US entered Baghdad, the bus was destroyed. Soon after the rent on the family home in the city's Bayaa neighborhood tripled, the Farhuts became squatters.

Yet compared with many in this city, they're well off. Since April of 2003 they have been living on the banks of the Tigris in a former social club owned by Saddam Hussein's son Uday. Their home, once an open stand used to sell grilled meat, has a concrete floor and walls on the three sides.

Zainuba Farhut, the family matriarch, says they haven't been able to buy kerosene for their heater for weeks. They have a small electric heater but with electricity on for only two hours then off for four, it doesn't do much good. "We just all sleep in this room together and heap on as many blankets as we can,'' she says.

Now her husband works as a day laborer when he can. This week, he got a job delivering a car to Iraq's southernmost city of Basra, a trip that takes him over the dangerous roads just south of the capitol, where dozens have been killed and kidnapped in recent weeks.

"We're living on about 5,000 [$2.80] dinars a day right now,'' she says. "We don't eat meat or fish anymore, but it's good for him to have work. He hasn't found a construction job for weeks - we heard that material prices have risen because the roads are so bad."

Despite the tough times, there's little bitterness in her voice as she tells her story, offering glasses of orange drink to her guests and praising the American invasion of Iraq. "To this day we are grateful for the American soldiers; they rid of us Saddam. It's just that now we have to face terrorists and bombs."

She and her husband are planning on voting in the Jan. 30 election, but it comes as news to her that the interim parliament's primary job will be to write a new constitution for Iraq. "I think their priority should be security. This is what the people want."

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