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Iraq: "we want food not fancy talk." (includes related article) (Outlook 1993)

The West has failed to change political conditions inside Iraq and Saddam Hussein's strength only seems to grow. Many Iraqis now mistrust the West's intentions and their main priority now is to improve food and water supplies.

EVERY TIME THE United States passes a new resolution to limit access to land or air space to Iraq, every time it refuses to lift economic sanctions - even by one notch - it gives Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein more ammunition and his strength appears to grow. Spending millions of dollars supporting an increasingly noisy but apparently ruffle opposition based outside the realm of Baghdad, the West seems to have failed miserably in changing both political conditions inside Iraq and popular Iraqi sentiments towards the West.

The muster the Iraqis found to complete the building of the Saddam River, second only to the Euphrates and Tigris, and the consolidation of military power in the south is proof that Saddam is not yet "finished". His people continue to live off an ever decreasing minimum but fear stifles their will to revolt. Sporadic mini uprisings, including one reported attempt by army officers last summer, always ends in the death of the "renegades". More recently 84 officers and other army and security personnel were decorated by Saddam Hussein for "keeping the order" during an incident said to have occurred in early October in the southern provinces. No mention was made of what the "incident" was about.

The strong military presence in the south testifies to the real situation there. City governors, all of whom are military personnel, are flanked by tanks when their cars move through town. With the exception of Basra, the largest of a dozen or so large and medium sized cities south of the 36th parallel, all other dries appear to be fortified both inside and out. The famous marshlands are said to have been drained dry. Last summer Saddam told southern military personnel to destroy some 360 homes, which he called "huts". The televised instructions of the president were clear, "Offer them money and a place to relocate and bulldoze the huts - if they say no do it anyway!"

With a little infiltration from Iran the "rebels", as they are known had used the marshes as their hiding place. Ambushes on military personnel were common until the government in Baghdad decided to put an end to it. First the government cut off the food supplies to the area. The raiding of relief trucks was commonplace in the marshes during the time when non-governmental organisations were still active in their relief effort in the south. About six months ago all such relief work was terminated by the authorities. The destruction of all housing as ordered by the president followed.

The water of the marshlands has been re-channelled to the Saddam River. The move is supposed to help irrigate additional agricultural land so Iraq can become self-sufficient in food production. While many scoff at the project and condemn the destruction of the thousand-year-old marsh culture, agricultural experts believe Saddam's plan to increase agricultural production will work. Despite rhetoric coming out of Tehran and the Kurdish areas, an uprising in the south under present circumstances appears extremely unlikely.

Locals feel that Western forces are unwilling to do much. "The people have not forgotten how they were abandoned at the only time when things really mattered - right after Kuwait was re-taken," said one southerner from Basra city. Mistrust of Western intentions runs deep and talk of dividing Iraq found no support in the south, whether among the few that are genuine supporters of the regime or those opposed to it. The food and supply situation in the south is dire. Vegetables, bread and date products are the staple diet that keep the average southern Iraqi going.

The government has launched public works projects aimed at rebuilding the infrastructure of the south. Sewage systems, bridges and social centres are being rebuilt and the projects are helping to alleviate some of the over 50% unemployment among the male sector of the population. After nearly two years without jobs many southern Iraqis are just happy to earn some money and seem to care very little for a well financed opposition they cannot see. "We want food not fancy talk!" says a resident of the southern city of Ammara.

The need for sufficient food supplies is spreading. One of the main reasons for wanting to increase agricultural production in southern districts is because the government is well aware the economic embargo may stay in place for a long time to come. "The embargo is helping the government reorganise internally to create greater self-sufficiency - especially in foodstuffs," explained a civil servant in Baghdad. Iraq has traditionally imported 70% of its food and was thus vulnerable to the embargo. However, its rich farmlands and water harnessing methods will help make it less dependent on food imports. However, the Iraqis have not yet found a substitute for chlorine which they need to purify their salty and polluted water.

The breakdown of the sewage system, which occurred as a result of allied bombing, still prevails and much of the water-related infrastructure is inoperable. Swamps of raw sewage all over the south are still an eye sore as well as a cause of the many water-related diseases which prevail. Baghdad's relationship with the north is very different from the south. While the southern rebels are described as troublemakers the Kurds are now called traitors.

All along the unofficial border between the Kurdish controlled areas and the Baghdad controlled areas tanks are poised towards the north. People in the Kurdish areas say that the Kurds do not stand a chance against Baghdad's tanks if a new assault on the north is launched. With pressure mounting from anti-Kurdish Turkey, Iran and Syria, Baghdad believes the chances are that Massoud Barzani, who is considered the only acceptable Kurdish leader by Baghdad, will eventually agree to a compromise, which would mean a limited autonomy with the Iraqi government. The fact that Massoud Barzani is one of the three "rotating presidents" of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) which groups Iraqi opposition groups outside the borders of Baghdad's control does not seem to impress the Iraqi government. The INC believes that it can infiltrate the southern regions of the country through help from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and with financial backing from the West. Conceding that they have no "massive" following within the south and virtually none among the Sunni Muslim establishment in the central regions the opposition has de facto marginalised itself.

Baghdad has intentionally closed its eyes to the black market though trade goes on between southern Iraqis and the Saudis. The trade goes mostly towards Saudi Arabia and consists largely of Iraqi-made alcohol for which the Saudis pay hard currency. This arrangement is welcomed by Baghdad which sees it as a pressure-lever for the hardship stricken south. "Infiltration" of foodstuffs from the INC through Kuwait and Saudi Arabia will ease pressure on Baghdad. "If they want to send in food across the border - all the better for us," said one defender of the regime in the south when asked how he thought such moves would change the sentiments in the region. Southerners and members of the INC all agree that the key to changing the government of Saddam Hussein will be the army and the Sunni establishment. "When Baghdad rebels then it's all over for Saddam - not before," said a southerner.


GDP: ID146bn; $20bn GDP per capita: $751 Population: 56.9m GDP growth: 1992 2.8%; 1993 4%

* Reconstruction of the economy, as opposed to threadbare maintenance, can only get under way when UN sanctions are lifted. Iraq probably has the potential to export up to 2m b/d but Saddam Hussein will continue to balk at the terms for lifting the Un embargo. He cannot leak any crude out via Turkey because the Kurds control the northern frontier. Most of the income earned will be diverted by the UN for humanitarian and peacekeeping expenses. Better in that case to export nothing and expand capacity.

* Signs of economic stress are growingly apparent, most dramatically in last year's execution of "profiteers". But accurate estimates of industrial and agricultural output, inflation and wage levels are impossible to make. Whatever its straitened circumstances, the regime is pressing on with major infrastructural schemes such as the Third River canal project in the southern marshlands.

* Unsubstantiated coup attempt reports aside, Saddam Hussein seems to be in little danger from within the regime. The likelihood of foreign military intervention in southern Iraq has receded now that George Bush has been voted out of office, while the Kurds and other opposition groups have yet to display any real political cohesion.

Scramble for luxuries

WHILE SKINNY PEOPLE are still a rare site on the streets of Baghdad, the economic sanctions are beginning to change the eating habits and lifestyles of the average Iraqi. With the US dollar now worth up to 30 Iraqi dinars the economic situation has visibly worsened in the last six months. Last summer the dollar would get no more than 17 dinars.

The scrambling for the now famous 146 luxury items which will be illegal in 1993, is an indication that the middle class still has money. The ban on luxury items such as costume jewellery, some electric appliances, imported cheeses and 143 other selected items has caused some discontent and the president's son Oday is said to be opposed to the policy of banning luxury goods. The Iraqis had enjoyed a relatively high standard of living and some say luxury items are a "psychological need". The more basic needs, say most residents of Baghdad, are available through government subsidies which allow an increasing number of families to survive. Basic food supplies were rationed and almost the entire Kurdish harvest was bought at inflated prices by the Iraqi government, according to food merchants in Baghdad. "We have food for this winter - no problem!" said one merchant.

While the poor may be satisfied with food in their stomachs Iraq's large middle class is becoming increasingly discontented. The financial resources of the middle class are diminishing fast. Most merchants concede that these days their only big customers are loan sharks and war profiteers. A continually rising crime rate, despite death sentences if they are caught, has frightened many families into getting guns. Even with small salary rises the average government employee now makes the equivalent of only $10-15 a month. And most Iraqis believe that as long as the economic situation continues the crime rate will continue to rise.
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Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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