Iraq

By Pisik, Betsy | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 3, 2000 | Go to article overview

Iraq


Pisik, Betsy, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


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. …

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