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.
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.
Finally, we come to Iraq's established professional class. This large group of women and men are cosmopolitan. They come from the Kurdish towns and the southern marshes, from farms and the old urban families of Baghdad, Mosel, Kerbala, and Basra. Even though they traditionally despise the military, they have played a significant role in the nation's growth. Saddam has exploited their skill and pride even if they are not Baathists. They have wielded some influence, especially in international relations. They are the moderates, the very people who could form the basis of a friendly new democracy.
Their ranks include 6,000 university faculty; 8,000 medical doctors; engineers; architects; hundreds of archaeologists and many more historians; and still more English-literature scholars. They are a highly secular people, with little regard for religious ideologues. They are artists and writers; they enjoy Shakespeare and Hemingway and Najib Mahfouz. They experiment with music, synthesizing Arab and Western traditions. They translate and interpret a wide range of ideas from abroad, from Greek epics to American pop art.
Many of these women and men received advanced training in the West and incorporated Western values in science, the arts, law, and medicine into their education system. Most of them speak English, and they have traveled to Europe and the United States. In the past, people from this class would report abuses by their regime to their peers abroad. Many who dared to challenge the dictator came from this class. Some died in their attempts.
Today, however, they are almost decimated, victims of the embargo and too weak to effect any change. Their demise is a lesson to anyone advocating a policy of economic strangulation.
Food shortage is only one of the hardships snuffing out this class. Deprived of books and other intellectual stimulation, they struggle to maintain their professional standards. They express shock at how the West -- ''our teachers and colleagues'' -- seems to have abandoned them. Meeting them, one becomes aware that the UN embargo is also an information embargo. ''We feel betrayed,'' says a surgeon in Kerbala who trained at Great Ormond Hospital in London. ''Our professors will not communicate with us. Our medical and literary journals cannot reach us.''
Sabri Dawood, a mathematics professor, received his PhD from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. He notes that any scientific paper he or his colleagues send abroad for assessment is ignored or returned unanswered. ''We are shut out of the scholarly community in which we were trained,'' he says. Iraqis in the humanities as well as the sciences charge that their professional journals, mailed to Iraq, are stopped at Western post offices.
In the face of these challenges, one of the few independent forces within Iraq is disappearing. These are the women and men who could become the foreign delegates, the bureaucrats and architects, and the art and poetry critics -- the very people to rebuild relations when Iraqi ties with the West are restored. Given their experience under the embargo, this is unlikely now.
Today, while this class does not embrace the regime, they are less likely to oppose it. ''We knew our government was never with us. But we trusted the West, the professional community abroad, our colleagues, whose principles we shared,'' says a bewildered professor of history who speaks Dutch, German, and English.
In its preoccupation with Iraq's military strength, Western supporters of a continued embargo have overlooked this key element in Iraqi society with which the West could have built something new. We may well find that no one but the military is left with which to negotiate.