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Life in Baghdad 10 Years After the Gulf War

Published on Friday, November 24, 2000 in the
Independent / UK 
               The Pariah's Den 
               Life in Baghdad 10 Years After the Gulf
               by Kim Sengupta 
               Baghdad is booming. The wide boulevards
are freshly tarmacked and, every few weeks, 
               scaffolding is removed to reveal
shining new buildings. In the early evening, the
lobbies of 
               the five-star hotels – the Al Rashid,
the Al Mansour and the Palestine – rustle with the 
               hurried step of dozens of staff members
and government officials in fake Versace. 
               Businessmen entering the Al Rashid walk
over a mosaic floor that features George Bush's 
               face. Within the lobby, Saddam Hussein
watches made out of gold-plated martyrs' 
               Kalashnikovs sell for $120 (£80)

               The men, and a small number of women,
are here for the Baghdad trade fair, attended by 
               1,500 companies from 45 countries. They
are all trying to compete for contracts worth 
               billions of dollars to be negotiated by
Saddam Hussein's regime, oiled by the 2.3 million 
               barrels that Iraq pumps out every day. 

               Outside the hotels, purring Mercedes
and BMWs with the back windows curtained are 
               waiting to sweep the international
entrepreneurs along Baghdad's newly resurfaced 
               boulevards, to the freshly restored
restaurants on Al Massabah Street. But a chosen few 
               will be taken elsewhere, to the private
clubs where the real power in Iraq is brokered.
               be going to the oak-panelled club rooms
of the Hunter, the Alchandria, the Al Forocia – a 
               riding establishment with an exclusive
bar and restaurant, and the Al Zowariq, where the 
               ιlite keep yachts and power boats on
the Tigris. 

               These are the clubs where Saddam's
coterie go to unwind. Most of these proudly bear the 
               name of their chairman, Uday Hussein,
Saddam's son, on their letterheads. Uday is now in 
               a wheelchair, crippled after being
ambushed in the centre of Baghdad while driving his 
               Porsche cabriolet. 

               In these clubs, as bodyguards stand on
discreet guard, the foreign visitors will be treated
               local delicacies such as smoked fish
from the Tigris, wines from the Lebanon and France, 
               and 12-year-old Scotch. You can get
almost anything in Baghdad and, compared to 
               Western prices, most luxuries are
remarkably cheap. A bottle of Scotch costs $6, an Yves

               St Laurent handbag will set you back
$100, while the latest widescreen television sets go 
               for about $400. The US may be the
official enemy but the greenback is very welcome. 

               You would scarcely know this is a city
under sanctions. But Iraq is a society of parallel 
               lives. Just a few miles from these
well-stocked clubs and restaurants stands the
               hospital, where 13-year-old Marwan
Ibrahim lies on a dirty bed, blood haemorrhaging from 
               his nose and mouth. He has cancer. He
will not get the bone marrow transplant he 
               desperately needs if he is to survive.
On the next bed, four-year-old Mariam Ayub is in the 
               early stages of cancer. She is an
exceptionally pretty girl, with a shy smile. Her
               Adra, wants us to take a picture of her
daughter so that she can remember her this way – 
               before her looks change with the
ravages of the disease and death claims her too. 

               Marwan and Mariam are just two of the
half-million Iraqi children who have contracted 
               cancer since Saddam launched his
disastrous invasion of Kuwait 10 years ago. In the war

               that followed in January 1991, the West
used weapons coated with depleted uranium, 
               which, it is claimed, contributed to
the massive rise in cancer. After the war, sanctions 
               imposed by the UN have blocked
essential supplies of medicine and equipment that
               have saved Marwan, Mariam and so many

               The British and US governments would
have you believe that the people who cannot afford 
               to eat or get ill in Iraq will,
eventually, be driven by sanctions to overthrow
Saddam. The 
               average monthly salary of a doctor,
which used to be about $1,000 (£670), is now between 
               $3 and $5. It is much the same for
other professions. Most professionals do two or even 
               three jobs just to survive. Ali Daoud,
a 51-year-old optometrist who qualified in Hamburg, is

               a taxi-driver in the evenings, plying
his trade in a battered 10-year-old Nissan with 
               cannibalised parts. He is hoping to get
a job as a cleaner in one of the hotels, where a 
               week's tips would bring him more than
he currently earns in a month. Would he, and others 
               like him, form an eventual opposition
to Saddam? 

               "No, no, I am not political," says Ali
hurriedly. His friend Nasr, a fellow taxi-driver who
               worked as a chemist, breaks in:
"Listen, people are too tired with the effort of just
living. We 
               have had 10 years of sanctions. We are
too tired, we have no energy left to protest about 
               anything. The soldiers lack nothing, we
are no match for them." 

               Posters of Saddam are plastered all
over the city. Fifty yards from where we are standing,

               another poster hangs outside the Palace
of Justice: in this one, he stands holding scales in 
               one hand and a sword in the other,
swathed in judicial robes which look more like a 
               dressing-gown. Nasr nods towards it,
and makes a highly seditious throat-cutting motion. 

               Since the middle classes had their
wages devalued, most have sold everything to keep 
               going. First went luxuries such as
television sets and video recorders, then furniture
               then their good clothes. Rahim al
Sharifi, a teacher, is selling the last of the book
               he built up over 23 years. The dozen
books include Time For a Tiger by Anthony Burgess, 
               Great Expectations and The Pickwick
Papers. "I love Dickens. I had most of his books, 
               once," he says in a soft voice. "They
were my private books, but I used to read them to my 
               pupils at school. But no more. What a

               The only computers officially allowed
by the sanctions committee in New York are at least 
               10 years old. Anything newer, it is
declared, will help "Saddam's war machine". Of course,

               like everything else, modern computers
are available in Baghdad. But they are smuggled in 
               and affordable only to the rich. "In
the poor schools we have got a shortage of everything,

               even pencils. They do not want us to
have pencils because they say the military can use 
               the lead. Can you believe it?" Mr Al
Sharifi shakes his head. "How can you give children 
               new ideas without books, pens, or
pencils? How can you change anything, even about 
               different forms of government, without

               Lernik and Arpik Bedrosian, two
sisters, run Mackenzie's, the oldest English-language 
               bookshop in Baghdad. They are Armenian
Christians – Christians now number 750,000 of 
               Baghdad's population of two million.
Lernik, a presenter on the local satellite TV channel,

               says: "We are now culturally isolated.
No new books have been allowed in by the 
               sanctions. By stopping the books they
are also stopping Western culture and outside ideas 
               coming in. What does the West hope to
gain by this?" 

               But if the poverty of ideas is
spreading insidiouslythrough the isolated community,
in the 
               hospitals the effects of the embargo
have been most immediately and visibly catastrophic. 
               A range of drugs, from vaccinations to
pain killers and even cleansing agents such as 
               chlorine, are banned because they can
be used for "dual purpose". George Robertson, 
               when he was Defence Secretary,
repeatedly declared that Saddam has $275m worth of 
               medicine stockpiled in his warehouses
that he refuses to distribute. 

               I could not find anyone in Unicef, the
World Health Organisation, or the relevant charities 
               who would endorse these figures. Hans
von Spaneck, the former UN humanitarian 
               co-ordinator in Iraq, said the amount
held in stock was about 12 per cent. Anupama Rao 
               Singh, Unicef's senior representative
in Iraq, said inspections show the figure to be
               10 and 15 per cent – the standard
minimum that should be held for emergencies. Even 
               Scott Ritter, the UN arms inspector the
Iraqis kicked out claiming he was a spy, told me in 
               London that there was no evidence of
medicine being stockpiled by the regime. "The 
               sanctions", he said, "are pointless and
self-defeating. They are not hurting Saddam, they 
               are hurting the people of Iraq." 

               Madeleine Albright has other views.
When she was asked on television whether she thought 
               the deaths of half a million children
was a price worth paying, she said: "This is a very
               choice, but we think the price is worth
it, yes." 

               Britain has taken the lead in enforcing
sanctions against Iraq. No British companies are 
               known to have taken part in the Baghdad
trade fair, and foreign minister Peter Hain talks 
               about how dreadful all this
fraternisation with Iraq is. But there are US
companies keen to 
               get their snouts in the Baghdad trough,
camouflaging their involvement by dealing through 
               European subsidiaries. One of the most
prolific traders among these US firms is Halliburton, 
               whose chief executive was Dick Cheney
until he left to become George W Bush's running 
               mate. Mr Cheney, of course, was
secretary of state for defence during the Gulf War. 

               "What we are seeing is the
disintegration of a society," said Rao Singh, a UN
official. "Iraq 
               had invested heavily in social and
health care and in 1989, before the war, 90 per cent
of the 
               people had access to clean water and 95
per cent had access to good health care. Iraq was 
               in transition to reaching First World
standards. The rate of child mortality was one of the 
               best in the world. There has been a
fourfold increase, and it is now one of the worst. In 
               1990, an Iraqi child with dysentery had
one chance in 600 of dying, now it is one in 50. 
               These are statistics, but we are
dealing with real lives." 

               At the Children's Hospital, Dr Mohammed
Firas lists the drugs he needs but cannot have. "I 
               have not seen any improvements in
supplies, none at all," he says. "It is upsetting when

               you see little boys and girls die in
front of you and there is nothing you can do. We have
               lot of relapses because of the
shortages. We don't even have enough plastic sachets
               blood. We see families go away thinking
their children have been cured. But they come 
               back. We all feel a bit hopeless." 

               Marwan is one of those who had
relapsed. He first contracted cancer six years ago.
               mother points to his rapidly draining
sachet of blood. "He needs sometimes 10 of them a 
               day. But we can get only four. We know
it is a matter of time. What can we do? We can 
               only trust in God." And she strokes his
arm and cries. 

Iraq Resource Information Site

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