Life in Iraq
Independent Iraq is a young country, founded just 80 years ago. Yet its history has been an exceptionally troubled one, at times supported by the West, at others vilified. DILIP HIRO, a leading expert on West Asia, goes beyond the Western politician's spin to investigate first hand the hard realities of Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Exclusive extracts from chapter one of his new book.
Towards the end of the U.S.-led strikes, Iraqi dinars are being sold as war souvenirs.
"Iraqis are caught between internal pressure and external. But external pressure is much worse. It impinges on every aspect of our life daily - from electricity to drinking water to car repairs to text books to medicine. We see no end as yet."
Abdul Razak, a US-educated retired professor in Baghdad
ONE hundred and twenty-two degrees Farenheit in the shade. Late July, Baghdad (lit., Gift of God), the heart of Mesopotamia, the land between the Euphrates and the Tigris, rich and fertile in the midst of an arid zone. The famed Tigris, however, is so depleted that I can cross it without wetting my underpants if I so wish. But I don't. A sturdy baseball cap protects me from the blazing sun. Athir al Anbari, my plump translator-guide with bushy eye-brows and a mole on his left nostril, eyes me with envy. Having forgotten his baseball cap in a hasty exit from his home after siesta, he has to make do with a flimsy local newspaper to fend off the Mesopotamian sun's hot temper.
We are in the Fathwat al Arab (The Arab Quarters) neighborhood in central Baghdad, within the hearing distance of a muezzin calling from the minaret of the elegant al Gailani Mosque. Athir knocks at a door at random. It turns out to be the house of Yassin Abdul Hamid, a 68-year-old patriarch in a long white shirt and matching rubber sandals with a far away look in his myopic eyes. He is the head of a joint family of 14 lodged in a modest two story building. Of his four grown up sons, two are car mechanics, another is a waiter at a private club and the fourth, Afif, runs a small shop selling food grains something Yassin Hamid did himself until the government bought up his store in the course of nationalization of food distribution in 1980, transforming him into a civil servant, a job he kept for six years before retiring. "No matter what happens, there is always business in food stuffs," he remarks.
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His family's chief source of sustenance since the start of the Gulf War in January 1991 has been the rations provided by the Ministry of Trade. The patriarch shows me the rationing document for supplies of wheat flour, rice, sugar, tea, vegetable oil, milk, salt, lentils, white beans, detergent and toilet soap. It is a long sturdy sheet with 12 vertical rows of stamps each signifying an item one row for each month, with a wide column to the right carrying the address and other details of the household topped by a message from President Saddam. It reads, `To the Iraqi Woman: 1. The economic life of Iraq is organized according to the program that Iraq will win the war and hope that the battle will be resolved and benefit Iraq and the [Arab] nation. 2. The rationing is the socialist solution in this difficult period. 3. Rationing is the backbone on which to build the solidarity of our social life in this troublesome period.'
Meat and fish do not figure on the document, nor do vegetables or fruit. The Ministry supplies bare necessities, the monthly rations per person being: flour 20 lb.; rice 7 lb.; cooking oil 2.75 lb.; lentils 1 lb.; beans ½ lb.; powdered milk 1 lb.; sugar 4.5 lb.; tea 1/3 lb.; soap ½ lb.; and detergent ¾ lb.
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Then there is the psychological damage done by the American bombardments, which occurred in 1991, 1993 (twice), 1996 and 1998. A Unicef study revealed that four out of five primary school children had fear of losing family or friends due to bombing. Thus we have a new generation growing up in Iraq with hatred for the United States that stems from their personal experiences.
When Franesca tells me that low salaries have driven many teachers to take up better-paid manual or semi-skilled jobs, I think of Thaier Younis, the driver for my out-of-Baghdad trips. He is a tall, muscular man in his mid-thirties, courteous and dignified, more at ease with English than my official translator-guide. <243>It turns out that before the sanctions he was a geography teacher at a secondary school.
"As a school teacher now I would earn IQD 3,000 (US$ 4), just enough to buy a kilogram [2.2 lb.] of meat, a tray of 30 eggs, or one flashlight cell," Thaier tells me. "Schools are in a bad way," he continues, shaking his head. "I have two school-going children. They use old, tattered textbooks." Because of the US dollar tips he gets from foreign visitors like me, Thaier is comparatively well off. Unlike him, most parents find notebooks, pencils and pens too expensive to purchase.
Before the Gulf War the education ministry paid for the textbooks and stationery. Now it pays only for a half; and many parents cannot afford the rest. "The UN has withheld permission for producing paper in Iraq, so teachers have resorted to teaching orally with the aid of audio and video cassettes," he tells me.
The situation is equally dire at the university level, with the drop-out rate soaring to 30 per cent due to the economic pressure on the students' families struggling to survive. "Loma [a friend] was telling me about her university classes; she teaches computer studies," notes Nuha al Radi in her diary. "She has 60 students. They have no paper and no pencils. They write on the back of receipts, pharmacy bills, account books, anything that has a blank side to it. The university does not supply her with paper to photocopy the exams, so she has to write the exam on the blackboard; those at the back cannot see it, so when the ones in front have copied the questions, those at the back move to the front. There are only 10 working computers, so they take turns on the machines." (*Nuha al Radi, Baghdad Diaries, p.76.*)
Little wonder that the quality of teaching at the higher levels has deteriorated. The only way university teachers can keep the system functioning is by photocopying textbooks in violation of the international copyrights convention. But the problem is that many photocopiers are broken down due to lack of spare parts which are not allowed to be imported.
Among those who have been irked by the heartless decisions of the UN 661 Sanctions Committee in Iraq is Hans von Sponeck, the German head of the Baghdad-based UN Office of Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq (UNOHCI), from 1997-99. "It is not only about food and medicine," he says. "But it is also about intellectual genocide with professional journals, international newspapers, books, writing materials, computers, all considered non-essential by the Sanctions Committee, and vetoed." (*Middle East International, 3 September 1999, p. 20; Reuters, 2 November 1999. *)
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... When it comes to apportioning blame, most Iraqis say that Saddam put them in harm's way but did not cause harm. That was caused by the West, led by America. "Saddam did not drop bombs on us, or cut off our electricity and phones and water supplies; others did that", they say.' Sanctions provided Saddam with a perfect alibi for all the ills in Iraq. "If roads are potholed, if phones don't work, if there aren't enough medicines in hospitals, Saddam blames the sanctions. On the other hand, he takes credit for any improvement, however slight like, say, flower-beds appearing in Saadoun Street in Baghdad, a thoroughfare." Furthermore, explained Dhia, "due to the communications and educational embargo, middle class Iraqis have lost touch with reality. They do not read foreign papers or watch foreign television. All they are exposed to are the Iraqi state television and radio which offer a very distorted view of the outside world. Most people in Iraq don't know what a fax is, or a mobile phone. E-mail is a rarity even in Baghdad, and very expensive."
Sanctions loom large in the daily life of Iraqis. Whether middle class professionals or small shopkeepers or manual workers, Iraqis talk about the sanctions as the British do about the weather and Americans about the baseball. Will the economic siege of Iraq end, they wonder. If yes, how and when. I got a variety of answers to these questions.
But on one point all my respondents were of one mind: The sanctions are there solely because of the US. "If America pulls its hand out of the Security Council, then the embargo will end," says the portly wife of Muhammad Bagga, Umm Jassim, all wrapped up in a black cloak.
That Americans are stony-hearted when it comes to dealing with Iraq and Iraqis is a view shared unanimously by my respondents irrespective of their age, class, or sex. I doubt though if they know of the interview of the burly US Secretary of State Madeleine Karbol Albright with Lesley Stahl on Columbia Broadcasting Services (CBS) Television's 60 Minutes program on 12 May 1996. "More than 500,000 Iraqi children are already dead as a direct result of the UN sanctions," said Stahl. "Do you think the price is worth paying?" Albright replied: "It is a difficult question. But, yes, we think the price is worth it." (*CBS TV transcript, 12 May 1996. *)
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In his small crowded drawing room, Bagga proudly pointed to the picture on the wall showing Saddam Hussein pinning a bravery badge on his long white shirt in 1988 during the Iran-Iraq War after his son, Najib, a 35-year-old lieutenant, had been killed on a battlefield. Najib was his second son to die in the war, the first, named Jassim, having perished two years earlier at the age of 32. The images of the neatly dressed young men in uniform hung from the same wall that displayed the photograph of their father being decorated by the country's president and commander-in-chief. The fact that the young Baggas were both Shia Muslim, and had died fighting the Shia-majority Islamic Republic of Iran, made their deaths all the more poignant.
I wondered if Muhmmad Bagga saw any link between that war and the one that followed in 1991. But, by the time this thought struck me I was miles away from his home, in my hotel facing the Tigris.
Iraq, A Report From the Inside, Granta Books, London, 2003, p.271, £8.99, Indian price £5.99 (Penguin India)
Dilip Hiro is a full-time writer, journalist and commentator. His articles have appeared in leading newspapers like the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The Times, International Herald Tribune, Times Literary Supplement, Economist and Middle East International. He is also a frequent commentator on Middle Eastern, Central Asian and Islamic affairs on leading media networks like BBC Radio and Television, CBC (Canada), CBS Network (U.S.), Channel 4, Channel 5, CNN, Sky TV and Vatican Radio.
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