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Saddam's men use sanctions to secure their grip

This Independent article is something I really should have sent out at the
time, but it is still very relevant. It challenges the view that the
distribution system in Iraq is fair, but actually gives ammunition to the
anti-Sanctions argument: It shows how the the Iraqi people's dependence
on the government for food has given the regime yet more leverage over
them and added the fear of starvation to the other fears it uses to keep
control. The article also mentions how the rationing system restricts
movement, presumably making organization of opposition groups
even more difficult.
        Eleanor Coghill

Independent Saturday 12 December - Richard Downes, Baghdad

>From the top of the 11th-century spiral minaret of Samarra, the capital of
Iraq in ancient times, the 50 children were easily visible and audible. On
seeing a group of Westerners, they were urged into a chorus of 'Down, down
USA!' by their teachers. 'We've been told foreigners are going to kill us.
They'll bomb us from the air or starve us into submission. So we have to
fight them,' said one of the teachers.
        Within minutes the attendant appeared, asking for the foreigners'
names and writing down the car registration number. Both teacher and
attendant wore the tell-tale insignia of the ruling Baath Socialist Party.
        In this Saddam City suburb every house and head of household is
watched by party technocrats, often retired civil servnts earning a little
extra bu informing on thier neighbours. Poverty and unemplyment have
reached epidemic proportions and every institution is under strain.
Crumbling schools report absenteeism rates of 30 per cent. Petty crime is
ever-present. If there is to be a revolt against the ruling regime, it
could well start here.
        But any thought of dissent alarms Mahmood, a street vendor who has
fallen on hard times, like most of his neighbours. "I have to pledge
loyalty to the party. Any sign of disobedience and my monthly card would
be taken away."
        The card he speaks of entitles him to a ration of 9kg of rice, 2.5
kg of flour and cooking oil, without which he could not survive. He has to
collect the food on a specific day or lose his ration. He resents the
power of his local official. "If there was a revolution, that guy would be
chopped into a thousand pieces and thrown in to the river," he said,
drawing his fingers across his throat. The rations were introduced to
mitigate the worst effects of sanction, which have been in plce fo eight
years. Outside the north, where the United Nations administers rationing,
the long arm of the govenment reaches into the home of every citizen.
        The govenment has renewed the oil-for-food programme, whereby Irqi
oil is sold and the money used by UN agencies, in co-operation with
Baghdad, to supply the basic ration. Since 1996 the regime has rebuilt its
structure and reinforced its grip on vital institutions, say envoys in
        Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan told the new UN humanitarian
co-ordinator, Hans van Sponeck, that the government was keen to expand on
the programme's success. "Both parties [UN and government] need to
co-operate better, since the deal forms the basic pillar of this
government's success," the Babil daily paper quoted Mr Ramadan as saying.
        Despite all the noise created by the government over sanctions,
the ruling elite has found the isolation caused by the embargo useful in
keeping an eye on dissidents and intellectuals. Through the rationing
system, people with "ideas" can be closely monitored.
        "I could leave and get a job in a university in Egypt or Yemen or
even in the West, but my family is here and they would suffer," said
Barzan, an academic who relies on the government hand-out. "There might
even be reprisals." His salary before the Gulf War was worth more than
$5,000 a month., Now it barely covers the cost of transport. "I'm
exhausted but I must carry on for the sake of my family."
        Pointing to the house of the Baath organiser in his street, he
said: "He knows everything about me. He knows what time I come home and
what my family eat."
        It is difficult for such an educated man to accept the attentions
of a semi-literate party hack and he can take little comfort in academic
pursuits when times are so hard. "I haven't seen an up-to-date journal for
almost 10 years - just the rubbish produced by the Information Ministry.
You can't build a Scud missile with a literary jounal. Why don't [UN
sanctions officials] allow these journals in?" said Barzan, referring to
the ban on dealings of any sort with Iraqi institutions. Under the
embargo, exporting even The Beano to Iraq is illegal.
        Regulations reinforce the dependency and the stranglehold of the
regime. Moving around the country is no longer possible with the
government controlling the food supply: rations are dispensed only at the
home base of the head of the household.
        At the crumbling 28th of April Shopping Centre, named after the
revolution that brought President Saddam Hussein's party to power, cvil
servants collect extra rations. They are rewarded with 10kg of rice,
flour, soap and detergent. Outside, guards try vainly to prevent workers
selling their extra rations. "I sell my rice and flour to the local baker.
He shares the profit with me. It is a good arrangement," said a civil
servant and Baath member who gave his name as Nabeel. "I have used the
money to buy the car," he said, pointing to a jalopy, which provides yet
more supplementary income. "I take all civil servants in my area to work
... We go home in the evening and they pay me every month." Like all party
members, Nabeel regularly has to fill out a political-education diary on
everyone he knows. It is a wide circle of colleagues at work, customers
for his taxi service and clients for his rations. Sanctions have created
the perfect opportunity for him both to prosper and to bolster the
"Some people complain about the hard life," he said. "But they don't
complain in front of me."

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