- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2000

BAGHDAD As the heat of the day illuminates the ancient Tigris River, Athwer Kanimi heaves up another shovelful of mud and rocks and sifts it into a plastic tub. Usually he finds nothing, but sometimes he spots the faintest sparkle of gold dust.

The slender young man and a dozen others stand waist-deep in the filthy water, panning for gold in a nation that has been reduced by U.N. sanctions to creative coping. Today, Iraq is so poor that its people are salvaging the discards of the past to make ends meet tomorrow.

A decade after the United Nations imposed a sweeping economic embargo on the oil-rich nation, ordinary Iraqis are increasingly finding strength in their history to get on with their daily lives.

The gold these young men are panning is the remnants of a more prosperous time when Baghdad's thriving jewelers and artisans swept the small links and gold filings out of their shops and into the river.

"This is very hard work, but I like to do it," said Mr. Kanimi, who sells his cache to a jeweler for the equivalent of 70 cents a day. "In the winter, I find work in a restaurant, but this pays better."

At first glance, Baghdad appears to be a thriving city of construction, congestion and commerce. Cars choke well-maintained roads. Sprawling mosques, grand government buildings and luxurious private homes are taking shape, despite a shattered economy. Jewelry store windows are filled with gold and there is no sign of the bombs that pounded this city during the Persian Gulf war.

But it doesn't take long to realize the societal impact of the sanctions that remained in place after a U.S.-led international alliance drove Iraq from Kuwait in February 1991 in an effort to force Saddam Hussein to give up his program of weapons of mass destruction.

Children beg in the sprawling central marketplace and sell newspapers or incense on the street at one time unheard of in a nation with the planet's second-largest oil reserves.

Sanctions' impact

The government claims as many as 1.35 million people have died as a result of sanctions, and U.N. agencies concur that collapsed infrastructure and poor nutrition have created a widespread health crisis.

A U.N. program that allows Iraq to sell specified amounts of oil to pay for food and medicines has staved off famine in parts of Iraq, but hardship is pronounced in a country with insufficient electricity and poor sanitation and water-treatment systems.

Despite the hardships, the people display a tenacity born, they say, of their heritage.

"We are an ancient civilization, and 10 years of sanctions means nothing compared to that," says Qassem, an artist, teacher and proprietor of a new gallery and cafe in a residential Baghdad neighborhood. "We invented the alphabet, the wheel, art, poetry. What can the American government do to a people like this?"

Many Iraqis have taken second jobs to cope with the massive inflation spawned by the sanctions. In 1990, one Iraqi dinar was worth $3. Today, it takes 2,000 Iraqi dinar to buy $1.

Rezak Ahmed drives a taxi by day and works in a pharmacy at night, barely able to provide for his 10 children, ages 4 to 18.

"I work all day and night, and then I worry when I'm asleep," said Mr. Ahmed over a cup of sugared tea made from preserved lemons.

Periodic power cuts mean sudden darkness and stifling heat in a country where temperatures averaged 120 degrees this summer. A devastating drought is entering its third year imperiling food production in a country with less than 12 percent arable land.

"I cannot live this way any longer, and neither should my children," said Kula Jabar, a former civil servant who now supports her family as a seamstress. "I cannot afford meat, or fruits, or pretty clothes for my daughter. We have sold our luxuries. Life is not about suffering."

Middle-class and wealthier families long ago began selling off possessions to make ends meet. First the extra television and second car. Then the jewelry and carpets and antiques.

A poignant sight these days in Baghdad is the Friday-morning book market on Muttanabi Street, in which private libraries are laid out on blankets. These collections of books art, history, fiction, poetry, literature and scientific works in a dozen languages show the depth and breadth of Iraqi interests. The book owners themselves rarely appear at the market.

"Can you imagine how painful that would be?" says one salesman, who buys his books, mostly French-and English-language history and fiction, directly from peoples' homes.

Shouldn't be like this

On Aug. 2, 1990, Iraq which had barely finished burying its dead from the grim eight-year war with Iran invaded Kuwait, accusing the ruling Sabah dynasty of engaging in "economic war" by driving down oil prices.

The U.N. Security Council immediately condemned the attack, and four days later adopted by a 12-3 vote resolutions imposing sanctions of unprecedented scope and ambition on a country that once aspired to lead and even unify Arab states.

No nation or corporation was to buy Iraq's oil, depriving it of hard currency, nor was any entity to engage in any form of commerce with the pariah nation. In theory, Iraq was to be cut off from all foreign goods, including food, military equipment, textbooks and scores of vital products used routinely by 22 million people.

Although Iraqi troops were repelled by the U.S.-led international coalition in February 1991, the sanctions were left in place to compel Saddam to give up his program to build and stockpile weapons of mass destruction.

Baghdad insists it has nothing left to surrender and refuses to cooperate with weapons inspectors until the sanctions are lifted.

"The sanctions regime was not meant to harm the people of Iraq," said America's deputy U.N. ambassador, James Cunningham.

"What it was intended to do 10 years ago was create an incentive for the government of Iraq to move quickly through the disarmament process and the reparations process. Then the sanctions would be lifted and Iraq would be in a stabilized regional position without weapons of mass destruction," he said.

But many foreign diplomats, U.N. officials and the Iraqis themselves are skeptical of the U.S. position that the embargo was not to have a humanitarian impact.

"The U.S. government must see the condition of the Iraqi people," said one southeast Asian ambassador with four years in Baghdad. "They know what is happening here but they are blinded by their hatred of the regime and they are immobilized by pride."

The sanctions, he says are "like a genocide, but slow."

U.N. officials based in Iraq are more measured.

"It's no good to duck the issue," said Tun Myet, the U.N. humanitarian aid coordinator in Iraq. The problems "are not all one side or the other. There are areas that can be improved with genuine collaboration on all sides."

Mr. Cunningham says Washington is aware of the hardships born by ordinary people, and has worked to streamline the process by which educational, medicinal and agricultural and other humanitarian goods exempted from the embargo are approved and delivered.

The problem, he repeats, is not with the United Nations or the United States, but with Saddam Hussein.

"We are absolutely convinced that if the Iraqi regime would cooperate fully, there would be food and medicines and the wherewithal to take care of all their needs."

Oil for food

To stave off a humanitarian crisis and, some allege, allay international opposition to the embargo a complex system of food rations was initiated in 1996. The U.N. oil-for-food program is funded by revenues of oil sales, and distributes monthly staples such as flour, sugar, rice, lentils and tea to almost every family in Iraq.

More than $7 billion has been spent or earmarked since 1996 for essential imports and services. The effort is unique among international humanitarian aid programs in that it is rolling in money.

Among the nearly 20 million Iraqis who rely on the rations, gratitude is often tinged with frustration.

"Life is about meat and vegetables and sweets," moaned one junior-level government employee. "We cannot live on flour and rice day after day."

The rations are supposed to supply about 2,500 calories a day, up from less than 1,800 a few years ago.

Food recipients complain about the quality of some items, such as the cooking oil, and say that no adult can get by on only 250 grams of tea a month.

In the south and central regions of Iraq, the oil-for-food program has staved off famine, but hardship is pronounced in a country with insufficient electricity and poor sanitation and water-treatment systems.

Health services also have declined dramatically in the decade of sanctions, say medical workers and government officials.

Infant mortality has increased dramatically since 1984, when government records showed 42 deaths for every 1,000 live births. In a 1999 survey, UNICEF found 130 comparable deaths, and notes that one newborn in four has a low birth weight.

The United Nations warns that children born in Iraq in the past decade are more susceptible to stunting, retardation, learning disabilities and other chronic conditions related to poor nutrition and lack of basic health care.

In the Saddam Hospital for Children, for example, more than a dozen infants are listless and miserable on the "ward of death" for leukemia patients. The 350-bed teaching hospital is filled with advanced cases of preventable conditions that are exacerbated by malnutrition.

Nearly eradicated scourges such as polio, typhoid and cholera are making a comeback, according to Iraqi Health Minister Umaid Medhet Mubarak.

Dr. A.G. Rawi, chief administrator of the Saddam Hospital, said it was difficult to rebuild the standards of health under current conditions.

"It is very frustrating to make these people well if they're just going to go back and drink dirty water and eat poorly and live in the same conditions that brought them here in the first place," said the London-trained pediatrician.

A decade after the embargo was imposed, nearly everything appears to be available in upscale Baghdad shops from videos of American action films to luxury merchandise that no professional or functionary can afford on his $10- to $30-a-month salary.

Nor do they publicly acknowledge any resentment over the construction of Saddam's luxurious palaces and ostentatious "guest houses."

Millions of dollars have been spent to build two new mosques that are going up in Baghdad and will be among the largest in the world. But rather than complain about the amount of money being spent on such indulgences when basics such as food and medicine are needed, many see these projects as creating desperately needed jobs.

However, rarely at least in conversations with foreigners do people seem to blame the regime for their hardships.

Saddam everywhere

Saddam's name and visage are ubiquitous. His photograph hangs in many homes and offices; one of the new mosques will be named for him; many schools, hospitals, monuments and other public buildings already carry his name. Saddam's face is on the front of the fiercely devalued dinar note as well as on billboard-size portraits at most traffic circles.

The people whose ancestors gave the world the alphabet and the mythic storyteller Scheherazade have little access to information that is not state sanctioned.

The government controls all newspapers, television and radio in Iraq. Very few people have access to cable television, the Internet or even international telephone lines. Tourist visas have not been issued in a decade, and visiting reporters and trade missions are closely monitored by the government.

Oudai Faie, editor in chief of the government-controlled Iraqi News Agency, says sanctions have only toughened people, made them stronger in their devotion to Saddam Hussein and stauncher in their contempt for the United States and its strategic regional partner, Israel.

"We all understand these sanctions are the price one must pay to protect Iraq's sovereignty and dignity," he said. Mr. Faie's organization has 10 foreign bureaus, down from 30 a decade ago.

While Iraqis are concerned about their future, remnants of their storied past are at risk.

Few foreign tourists or Iraqis are able to visit the legendary ruins of Babylon, the 2,600-year-old gated city built by King Nebuchadnezzar and preserved, more or less, about 90 minutes south of Baghdad.

Mohammed Taher, an archaeologist who works as a guide at Babylon, says he can go for a whole day, or sometimes two, without receiving a single visitor to the biblical site, home of the now-lost Tower of Babel and the likely location of the Hanging Gardens.

The park is suffering from a lack of revenues, he said, but it is also cut off from visiting scholars and archaeologists who yearn to continue excavations and analysis.

People have carved their initials into the mud bricks, right next to the cuneiform inscriptions. Tellingly, the Ministry of Culture and Antiquities, which has partially restored the ruins, has embedded in the same walls elaborate plaques praising Saddam in the same script as the originals.

"They were going to put glass over that to protect it," said Mr. Taher, "but they forgot, or there is no money now. It's impossible to patrol everything."

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