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Iraq: a country set adrift.

Shattered by war damage and isolated by an economic blockade, Iraq is palpably deteriorating. Mariam Shahin returned last month from a tour of the country and reports on steadily worsening conditions. The decline into impoverishment and destitution will continue so long as the United Nations and Saddam Hussein are unable to reach a compromise.

STRANGE, UNCOMMON dust winds laced with precipitation dominate the skies of Baghdad and much of southern Iraq these days as never before. The change in weather, which allowed for rains in May, reflects the general mood in the country suffering from sanctions with no apparent end.

The average Iraqi feels totally incapacitated. Inflation is running at about 6,000% of pre-war prices, unemployment is rampant and availability of the most basic commodities is dependent on finding the money demanded.

In other words, this is a black market economy. Of course, not everyone has access nor can everyone or even any significant percentage of people afford black market goods. The black market is also limited in the number and variety of items that it carries. Frequently, the goods found on indoor and undercover black markets are restricted to popular cigarettes such as Marlboro and Black Label Johnny Walker whisky and maybe a few high-priced toiletries. Even medicines are scarce. Insulin and heart drugs, not to mention the more specialised medications, are simply not available.

The trauma of the allied war and the civil uprisings, the dead and the wounded and the increasingly sick and immune-deficient people have simply not recovered. Eye infections and actual blindness is on the increase, according to residents in the poor Baghdad suburb of Saddam City.

Deprivation and disease. The state of the economy has replaced the fear of war as the primary public worry. Last May's move by the government in Baghdad to withdraw all British-made Iraqi currency and replace it with locally made photo-copy versions created a furore (and reportedly some heart attacks) in bordering Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan.

But in Baghdad it was not clear if the move actually elevated the exchange rate of the dinar or did anything else of value for the Iraqi economy. Prior to the withdrawal of the old or "real" dinars, the exchange rate had reached ID11 to the dollar. After the withdrawal it remained stable at ID6.5. This was still more than twice as low as the rate in April.

The price of meat and eggs -- for those that can still afford these luxuries -- rose another 25% in May. Thus an increasing number of families are relying more and more on government food rations, which in essence cover 60% of an individuals calorie intake, but only 30% of nutritional needs.

Some foreign critics have been heard saying the government could make more food available through the ration system by devoting fewer resources to bridges and monuments. Regarding the ubiquitous monuments to Saddam Hussein, they have a point. The same can hardly be said for basic infrastructural repairs.

Many reconstruction projects are vital just to alleviate the overflow of sewage caused by broken pipes all over Iraq for example. The shattered infrastructure in the south has made headlines, but it is clear that many neighbourhoods in the capital also have an overflow of sewage and drainage.

The government says it can not make repairs without spare parts which are still sanctioned by the United Nations. Even importation of chlorine -- desperately needed for the cleaning water -- is still prohibited. Small amounts brought in by aid agencies are no more than a drop in a vast sea of pollution.

Obdurate United Nations. Every six weeks both senior and junior Iraqi government officials eagerly await the security council meeting at the UN headquarters in New York which votes and votes yet again on whether economic sanctions (in place since August 1990) are to be loosened, lifted or to continue. The answer has always been negative, as it was at the last vote taken on 25 May.

The latest decision to maintain sanctions across the board came as a letdown in Baghdad because there had been "hints" and "off the record indications" to Iraqi officials that sanctions would be softened, beginning with permission to import badly needed spare parts.

In May, the Iraqi government had been told by UN officials in Iraq that some 300 UN guards stationed in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq, where Baghdad has effectively lost control, will be "phased out". Baghdad was pleased, and many officials felt a reconciliation with the UN and the West was about to begin. As if to reciprocate before the West even made its first move, the Iraqis told UN officials in Baghdad that the necessary "Memorandum of Understanding" was being extended by six months for "emergency aid and relief only" shortly before the New York meeting convened. (The memorandum is the "pact" between the Iraqi government and all non-governmental relief and rehabilitation organisations (NGO's) as well as UN agencies working in Iraq.)

One of the few requests that the Iraqis did make ahead of renewing the memorandum was that the UN environmental programme investigate the state of 50 tons of depleted uranium anti-tank bullets that the allies left in southern Iraq.

At the time the Iraqis agreed to the extension they expected that the UN guards were to be gradually withdrawn and that an easing of sanctions was imminent. They were wrong to make either presumption.

The Security Council decided not to ease sanctions. Then in June, donor countries, which fund non-governmental and UN organisations working for relief and rehabilitation in Iraq, made the presence of UN guards a pre-requisite for continued funding when they met in Geneva. Furthermore a planned budget of $500m to implement projects that have already won approval from all sides was duly sliced to $220m.

The Geneva conference gathered all UN as well as NGO agencies dealing with Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan to discuss funding and strategy. By the end of the two-day meeting, donors had pledged all of $50m. A prioritised list was drawn up in which the maintenance of UN guards and so-called survival programmes (especially in the north) came out on top.

The maintenance of some 300 UN guards for a period of 12 months cost a massive $50m in the first year of their presence in the north. The UN has promised to make their stay more economically viable by presenting a new budget of $19m for their stay.

But there is also a lobby within the inter-agency group which is pushing for the use of the UN Iraq escrow account (of frozen Iraqi assets held overseas) to finance NGO and UN activities. NGO and UN personnel based in Baghdad were horrified at the thought. "The Iraqis will be furious," they said. They are now beginning to understand why the Iraqis are so bitter about the UN.

Surviving in the south. Southern Iraq seems to be firmly in the hands of the central government. Technocrats who were installed in several ministries after the spring 1991 rebellion against the central government are now being replaced by Baath party officials. But there are clear signs that Shia rebels are conducting a coordinated guerrilla war against the government.

The marshes, contrary to many reports, still exist. Many buildings have been visibly reconstructed and the waterways in some areas have been changed. Young men are not to be seen in most parts of the marshes. Many of the able-bodied are working in Basra and other southern cities where employment is available.

The marsh culture was dependent on fishing, agriculture and date plantations. Marsh Arabs say that their income has been drastically curbed because the export of dates and date syrup has been cut off. Um Mudar, aged 50, takes care of her family of 13. She lives in an isolated home near the marsh town of Talha. She says that her family used to earn up to ID1,500 (when that amounted to $1,500) a month before Iraq invaded Kuwait and the export sanctions were imposed. Today the family eats their dates and her husband tries to peddle them in Basra for a total of ID100-200 a month.

No one mentions "rebels" or opponents of the government. People only say that the young men have either gone to the cities to find work or "left the country".

The unemployment rate in Basra is probably greater than in other parts of Iraq. Many of its young men were volunteers in the Iraq-Iran war and of the one million strong army, 600,000 were laid off in 1992. Most of these young men sitting in coffee houses all over Basra have no technical or vocational training at all and thus are unlikely to find jobs as more than construction workers.

The reconstruction of Basra's broken bridges, of which there are at least a dozen, is finally taking place. But materials are limited and reconstruction of most of the city is still practically impossible.

The Basra suburb of Abila epitomises the decline of Iraq which has set in over nearly 13 years of conflict. War widows and disabled and unemployed young men gather for tea and bread at lunchtime. The disturbing stench of sewage and the multitude of flies is inescapable.

Infant mortality is high, says 52-year-old Um Sabah. She is the mother of seven and a war widow since 1986. Her main concern and that of her four sons who hover in their mother's living room, three mattresses on the floor, is food and basic survival. Saddam Hussein and the government are not on their mind.

When asked about the foreign press and reports of political opposition in Iraq, Um Sabah's 24-year-old son laughs. "Hungry people don't rebel, they kill and steal or die."

Northern contrast. If the people in southern Iraq are genuinely hungry, the people of the north suffer less from this predicament. Closer to Iraq's fertile and rich soils, they live off the land and seem far removed from Baghdad. Even in Mosul, which is very much part of Arab Sunni Iraq, the atmosphere is less congested and hungry. People worry more about access to medicines and the availability of jobs. Food, including vegetables and meat, is more widely available than in the south and Baghdad.

Many people live in farming communities. Those who do not often have access to them. The Iraqi Christians are sustained by their traditional mercantile influence and considerable monetary and social aid from their churches.

While life appears easier than it is in the south, military controls are more stringent. Heading towards Iraqi Kurdistan, the restrictions increase and the crossing between the Baghdad and Kurdish-controlled area is carried out mostly by foot.

The Kurdish-controlled governorate of Dohuk is evidently independent. Massoud Barzani, one of the two main Kurdish leaders, now occupies one of the six residences that President Saddam Hussein built.

But in the north people are beginning to suffer from their isolated position. Sanctioned by Baghdad and unable to build a completely separate infrastructure, they have been hurt by their inability to trade with the Iraqi government. Deforestation is becoming serious because nobody can afford the price of heating oil.

Trade is limited to importation from Turkey at hard currency prices and no-one is able to start a business from scratch. Unemployment, says Matin Ahmed from the town of Amadia, is the "most serious problem that we have".

Many Kurds are returning to the fields and becoming farmers. Most were employed by Baghdad's huge bureaucracies and government agencies at some point. These jobs have not been replaced. Kurds here openly say that they want trade with Baghdad and an end to the frontier between Iraqi controlled areas and Kurdish controlled areas. What they do not want is to be ruled by Baghdad.
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Title Annotation:Current Affairs
Author:Shahin, Mariam
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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