SAID NASSER, a chemistry teacher from the southern Iraqi town of Basra, reflects the tragic despair of this country's deteriorating middle class as he joins a long line outside the Libyan Embassy here in the hope of getting a teaching post in Libya.
"I can't afford to feed my family anymore, and I have heard that the pay is much better in Libya - even though the life there is hard," said Mr. Nasser, who quit his teaching post in Basra last year to work as a waiter.
The move pushed up his pay tenfold, from a little more than $1 a month to about $12 a month, at the unofficial rate of 2,500 dinars to the dollar.
Nasser's wife also earns little more than a dollar a month, and the couple is finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.
The Nasser's plight is typical of millions of middle-class Iraqis who have been forced into a battle of survival - caught between Saddam Hussein's repressive regime and the strict UN oil and trade embargo that was slapped on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in August 1990.
In the five years since the UN embargo was imposed, the fabric of Iraqi society has unraveled to such a degree that many foreign aid workers say much of the damage is irreversible. A whole generation of professional men and women, intellectuals, artists, and writers are facing ruin.
The Nassers only earn about 33,500 dinars a month in a country where four-digit inflation has pushed food prices beyond the reach of most families, even at the official rate of 600 Iraqi dinars to the dollar.
A tin of milk powder costs anywhere between 700 and 1,500 dinars, and the average government salary (about 4,000 dinars a month) buys a few dozen eggs.
Libya - along with the Sudan and Yemen - are the only countries offering to employ Iraqis.
"My dream was to go to Scotland to complete my studies there, but the British Consul in [the Jordanian capital of] Amman would not grant me a visa. None of the Western countries will accept Iraqis since the end of the Gulf war," Nasser said.
Reversal of fortune
Some professionals manage to maintain their lifestyle with remittances from family members abroad - about 4 million Iraqis live outside the country.
Others have turned to more profitable pastimes, such as selling cigarettes and foreign currency or other goods on the black market.
In the Shorje market in downtown Baghdad, it is not uncommon to find academics, accountants, and engineers selling powdered milk or soda pop.
Crime rates have skyrocketed in the past five years. Prostitution, almost unheard of a decade ago, has proliferated, and bribery and corruption are endemic, say Iraqi professionals, diplomats, and aid workers.
Health care and education sectors are in crisis, and social and family values are under siege from a wave of lawlessness and corruption.
"There has been a fundamental change in the society," said Mohamed Zejjari, the United Nations Development Program chief. As coordinator of UN agencies here, he strives to alleviate the humanitarian impact of the Security Council's sanctions.
"The Iraqi bourgeoisie are becoming the poorest class, while farmers and mechanics are becoming the monied class - earning more than doctors and teachers," Mr. Zejjari said.
"Iraq used to be a leading developing country. It is now one of the world's least-developed countries," he said.
An estimated 1 million Iraqis have left the country since the Gulf war. About 200,000 have remained in neighboring Jordan.
Hundreds of thousands more would leave if they could afford the $100 they must pay before they cross the border. If they thought they had a chance of gaining visas to Western countries, still more would leave.
Such statistics are far more telling about the mood of Iraq's people than the well-orchestrated referendum this month on extending Saddam Hussein's rule. To no one's surprise, the Iraqi leader earned 99.6 percent of the vote.
And despite official Iraqi reports, the stability of the regime was called into question in August with the defection of the Iraqi leader's son-in-law, Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel Hussan, along with his brother and their wives - Saddam's daughters, Raghad and Rana.
Many of those who have given up the hope of leaving use all their savings to send their sons outside as soon as they are allowed to leave. Most are trapped in Jordan where they join the battle to find a job or get a foreign visa.
"Two or three years ago people still believed that change was possible, but now they have given up. They just don't care any more," said a European diplomat here. "It's a desperate and tragic situation."
Many trace the degeneration of the society to the invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent looting of Kuwaiti property by Iraqi soldiers. "That was the biggest mistake. Things got rapidly worse after that," said a former senior government official who sent his wife and children abroad after the Gulf war.
One professional man recently sent his son to Jordan in the hope that he will get a visa to join an uncle abroad. He said he became so concerned about rising crime and gangsterism that he used to wait up for his 21-year-old son to return home at night before he went to bed.
One of his son's friends was killed in a car hold-up shortly before he left. And in a separate incident, his son was shot at by a burglar at their home.
"When my 2-1/2 year-old son can't get his way, he aims a toy pistol at me, and opens fire," said the professional man, adding that television served up repetitive footage of battles from the 1982 to 1988 Iran-Iraq war and selected feature films concentrating on violence, war, and sex.
"I think the society has disintegrated to a point where it cannot be saved," the man said.
The former government official said that bribery and corruption was so pervasive that it was almost institutionalized.
He said that top government officials were profiteering from the sale of black-market goods smuggled from Jordan and from the sale of medicines and food supplied by development agencies.
"Is it surprising that the youth have lost faith in the government?" asked the former government official.
"They don't believe [Deputy Prime Minister] Tariq Aziz anymore when he says the embargo will be lifted next year," he said.
Deputy Health Minister Shawky Marcus said the embargo on medicines had led to about 300,000 patients dying prematurely since August 1990.
He said the disruption of the food supply was creating a generation of malnourished children whose growth, psychological condition, and education will be adversely affected.
"Why should Iraqis suffer like this? It is not like Somalia. Iraq is a potentially rich country," Dr. Marcus said.
A recent study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization published this month found that malnutrition in Baghdad was widespread, with as many as 12 percent of children "wasted" (badly underdeveloped due to malnourishment), and 28 percent "stunted."
$2.7 billion would help
The FAO has urged the UN not to allow food to be used as a political weapon against Iraq's population.
The FAO said that Iraq should be allowed to import food and agricultural equipment to meet its basic food needs, which were running at a shortfall of $2.7 billion.
UN coordinator Mohamed Zejjari said the Iraqi government food rations, which supplied about 50 percent of families' food requirements, were the only factor preventing a full-blown famine.
"There is a silent and progressive starvation taking place," said Mr. Zejjari of the UN. He also warned that lifting the embargo would not end the country's problems. "It will be much more difficult when the sanctions are lifted, because expectations are so high," Zejjari added.
Nasser, the man outside the Libyan Embassy, is not waiting to find out. He has decided that Libya, which is subject to a US trade embargo and is expelling thousands of Egyptian, Sudanese, and Palestinian workers, must be better than the status quo in Iraq.
"I don't want to leave my country, ... but what else can I do?" asked Nasser.