ALMOST three years after the international community imposed
trade sanctions against Iraq in punishment for its invasion of
Kuwait, there are signs that the government is coming to share its
citizens' desperation to see the ban lifted.
Government officials say confidently that Iraq's economy can
withstand indefinitely the ban on all Iraqi exports and all imports
except food and medicine.
But Iraq's agreement July 19 to allow long-term UN monitoring of
its weapons program suggests a deeply felt desire to find a way out
of its economic stranglehold.
With the true size of Iraq's hidden foreign reserves known only
to President Saddam Hussein and a handful of his most trusted
advisers, no one can tell how long those undiscovered, unfrozen
assets can keep the Iraqi economy afloat and the people alive.
"We will survive," declares Trade Minister Muhammad Mahdi Saleh,
who points to such grand projects as the construction of a new
twin-level bridge over the Tigris River in Baghdad as "a sign to
tell the West that we are a country that will never die."
After several standoffs, Baghdad has agreed to the installation
of cameras at two missile-testing sites. That opens the door to
negotiations on issues such as a limited resumption of oil exports.
Baghdad's move to cooperate with the United Nations comes at a
time when the vast majority of Iraq's 19 million people are at the
end of their tether. Wages may have doubled over the past three
years, but the increase is meaningless when the price of wheat
flour, for example, the most important staple of the Iraqi diet,
has risen 355-fold and cooking oil has gone up 106-fold.
Begging boys, previously unheard of in this oil-rich state, are
a common sight. Government employees drive taxis or hawk anything
they can sell, and women flood jewelry shops to sell their
traditional gold bracelets.
Most people spend every dinar they make just to eat. "I buy
nothing but food, and it is still not enough," says Hamed, a
middle-aged man standing disconsolately in front of a vegetable
stall at the Doura market in Baghdad. "I make do with the clothes I
have always had, and I still can't afford to buy a fish for my
Government rations, costing just 1 percent of their market
values, provide each family with the bare necessities of rice,
flour, sugar, tea, and vegetable oil.
Those rations "are all that stand between the Iraqi people and
catastrophe," says Rudy Joseph, who last month led a UN Food and
Agriculture Organization (FAO) mission to estimate Iraq's food
needs. The rations offer only 50 percent of a person's nutritional
needs, and Iraqis are enduring "persistent deprivation, chronic
hunger, endemic undernutrition ... and widespread human suffering,"
the FAO said. …