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Letter From Iraq

A Land In Limbo, Sinking Ever Lower

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 23, 2000; Page C01


BAGHDAD-Jalil Abadi, a 55-year-old civil engineer, is ending his career being paid the equivalent of 30 cents a day to oversee the Baghdad Museum's display of dusty mannequins in traditional costumes.

His office has no computer, no journals, no filing cabinet and no heat. The electricity is on but could flick out at any moment under one of Baghdad's frequent rolling blackouts. Abadi's goals as local museum director are scrawled on a piece of ragged pink paper: Add a few more mannequins. Maybe get the heating fixed.

Normal life--the ability to plot the course of an education, a career or a family with some sense of what the future will be like--ended in Iraq 20 years ago, when President Saddam Hussein launched a costly eight-year war with Iran. Then, in August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, leading to war with a U.S.-led alliance and years of punitive sanctions.

By now, after two decades in the suspended animation of war or economic sanctions, this has become a country sapped of ambition. It is a place where everyone has a memory of someone killed or taken prisoner, but few have explicit hopes for the future.

"Not married, no life, no continuous job," was how Mazan Jafar summed up his situation seven years after he left college with an engineering degree. He sometimes gets work designing housing for a private firm but supplements that in a street-side book market where the current stock includes algebra texts from the 1940s.

Twenty years ago, Iraq was considered an emerging success story, with high literacy rates and social programs that paid for the education abroad of thousands of Iraqis. Oil prices were high and the state's largess helped boost living standards through electricity, road and other infrastructure projects and direct loans for consumer goods such as automobiles. But all that is gone, and the memory of it compounds the sense of loss.

"It's not normal, the situation now," said Jamal Daoud, dean of the business school at Al Mastansaria University. "My secretary takes home 3,000 dinars a month [less than $2 at current rates]. That's not enough to buy two chickens. . . . Iraq will need 20 years to start from the beginning."

From rising crime and an increase in fatherless households, to falling literacy rates and school enrollment, United Nations workers point to evidence of decline. The poor struggle, rationed enough food under a U.N.-monitored program to provide little more than a basic diet.

Humanitarian groups have focused on the most dramatic effects of trade sanctions, including controversial estimates of "excess deaths" attributable to the restrictions. U.N. officials, meanwhile, have documented acute problems exacerbated by the sanctions, including a steep rise in infant mortality after the Persian Gulf War and recurrence of diseases due to poor sanitation and the initial collapse of immunization programs.

Some of those conditions are improving. But a potentially more troubling concern has emerged: the collapse of the middle and technical class that Iraq's oil wealth had helped build in the 1970s. Now they suspend basic decisions such as when to marry; they swap professional aspirations for a cab driver's license; they sell the family furniture to get by.

Links to the outside world are few. Dropout rates are rising. College students study from crumbling journals printed before the end of the Cold War. Medical doctors are puzzled about this phenomenon called the Internet.

"Iraq is quickly becoming a Third World country again," said U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator Hans von Sponeck shortly before he announced his resignation. "They had a very strong middle class, intellectuals, engineers, technical people. . . . Their whole life has changed. . . . It's ad hoc, piecemeal. . . . All of the energy goes into survival, coping. . . . Read? What for?

An elite--what one U.N. official called "fixers, operators and black marketeers"--sustains a market for luxury cars and other expensive goods. But far more indicative of life in Baghdad these days are the thousands of vehicles belching exhaust and in bad need of repairs that their owners cannot afford in what has become a strapped-together, baling-wire culture--this in a country with more than enough oil and other resources to provide for its people.

Discussion of what to do to improve matters is almost nonexistent. There is a weak opposition movement outside the country, backed by the United States, and an autonomous region run by Kurds in the northeast, also dependent on U.S. protection in the form of daily air surveillance. But in Baghdad, the pillar of Saddam Hussein's power, no one talks openly against, or even analytically about, a government known to punish dissent at the end of a rope and so sensitive about information that it jails citizens caught with satellite dishes.

The more adventuresome chuckle nervously when asked about the nation's leadership. Others attribute their troubles to "bad luck." More likely they blame, as Abadi did, "conspiracies" that forced Iraq to war with Iran and to invade Kuwait, or they devolve into complaints about U.S. imperialism frustrating strong, independent nations.

Men like Abadi plan their retirement having lived an interrupted life. He left for Romania in 1980, near the outbreak of the Iran war, intending to get a doctoral degree. He quickly returned to a country on the verge of decline.

"I thought it would all end in a few months," he said. "But we believe in our principles."

Principles have become an important part of the intellectual diet here. Even the president has begun to counsel forbearance, a change in his usually defiant rhetoric.

"Nothing is more capable of weakening resolution and blurring the ability to see things in the right perspective and evaluate them correctly than avarice and greed to acquire unnecessary food, clothing, drink and other things," he said in his annual speech marking the start of the campaign to force Iraq from Kuwait in 1991.

Compared with the tone two years ago, when he pledged the country's trials were nearly over, diplomats took his speech this year as a sign that he intends to continue trying to outlast sanctions--and of his recognition that a decade of defiance has done little to ease Iraq's isolation.

But even critics of sanctions, such as von Sponeck, say the Iraqis could manage better with the resources they are provided: medical journals, for example, might be expensive and hard to get, but nothing is preventing the Ministry of Health from giving doctors access to colleagues and information around the globe through the World Wide Web.

"They say they are going to bring a computer, but it hasn't happened," said Abbas Owayed, a 31-year-old doctor at Baghdad's main teaching hospital.

"I hear it has gotten highly sophisticated. . . . I want to be like this. Why am I reading old papers and having difficulty getting information?"

(c) Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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