Baghdad Before

The Iraqis are awaiting a solution, however it may be delivered, from out of whatever alien landscape. The Iraqi people have no control over any function of their lives except that of sheer survival. They can no more organize themselves to rid the nation of Saddam Hussein and the extraordinary network of power and solidarity he has built for himself over 34 painstaking and brutal years than they can appeal to the better nature of the new Imperium in Washington and ask to be considered as members of a deserving human race.

I can put it no better than in the words of an Iraqi intellectual, a political animal licensed to speak, but perhaps, in the circumstances, better left unnamed: ” The Iraqi people are resigned and frightened but they are not panicking. We are getting used to this. No-one cares about us or listens to us, neither the Anglo-American alliance nor the regime here in Baghdad. If there is some answer they are looking for it is in the field of religion. Karl Marx said ‘ religion is the spirit of a spiritless world.’ We Iraqis are living in a spiritless world. There is no more interest in our human rights in Baghdad than there is in London. Nothing remains for us except metaphysics.”

It seems a despairing quotation. But it is factual rather than despairing. The Iraqi citizen is bound up so closely in the process of sheer survival and caring for his family that he has little time left to repine or to speculate. Whether for better or for worse, the solace of religion-“metaphysics”, as my friend puts it–has gradually begun to stand in for the more pragmatic and practical politics practiced in this country since the British forged it out of the three post-Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra 80 years ago.

Although the Iraqi Government and the various NGOs engaged in trying to sustain a basis of life for Iraq’s 22 million people try to put a brave face on matters–life has improved marginally since the oil-for-food program began to take some effect towards the end of the 20th century, and it is important for the sake of Iraqi pride and self-esteem that the nation does not eternally present itself as victim and mendicant–the underlying reality of life is grim and reduced.

If it were not for the food ration, now distributed in two-monthly parcels across the nation, by Saddam’s Government in main-frame Iraq and by the United Nations in the “protected” areas of Kurdistan, Iraq would collapse into sub-Saharan or South Asian levels of starvation and disease. The food ration, acquired at government centers by the production of coupons, for a few cents, supplies the Iraqi people–all of them-with the bulk of their energy and protein. Some choose to barter bits of it, but for 70 per cent of the population, according to the NGO CARE, it is the center; the pillar of their survival. The size of the food ration has increased since for the oil-for-food program began to take effect, three to four years ago.

But it is important to remember that this is welfare. Iraq has no economy of its own. What oil it exports produces funds that are taken and administered by others. Those funds, politically organized and distributed by foreign powers who are unlikely to have Iraq’s interests primarily at heart, are very largely used to pay for Iraq’s meager supply of food and medicine. Whatever the level of earnings, the United Nations sanctions committee and the individual governments concerned in any contract, decide how Iraq’s welfare is allotted and spent. In the margin, perhaps $2bn to $2.5bn US a year, Saddam’s smuggled and nod-and-a-wink exports to Turkey and Jordan provide funds the Government can use as it sees fit: arms, mosques, education, computer technology. (Iraq has in the past year gained access to the internet.)

Iraq was, 12 years ago, before the Gulf War, earning up to $13 bn a year. Even after the depredations of the war with Iran, it remained a state whose provision of welfare was massive and efficient. The UN graded Iraq on a par with Greece in terms of standard of living and human expectation. These were not just measures of diet and health, though these were exemplary, but of education and personal fulfillment. Arabs came to Iraq to better themselves. The system of political rule was primitive, brutal and cynical–and, in its tight circle, corrupt. But Iraq in general was not a corrupt or corrupted society. The people had accepted a deal for themselves that the British had invented for the state they created in 1922: obey and be rewarded; disobey and be punished. Saddam Hussein took this philosophy to extreme lengths as he built his power base during the 1970s, but for most Iraqis what his apparatus delivered in terms of education, literacy, health, comfort and respect among Middle Eastern neighbors was worth the cost.

After all, Iran (pre- and post-1979), Syria, and Saudi Arabia, were hardly pluralistic models of freedom of thought and movement, and the perks of oil wealth were distributed among the population with much less creativity than Saddam’s functionaries brought to bear.

In 2002, Iraq is on a par with Mali; despite a much-vaunted slowing of the increase in child mortality, Iraq’s rate of increase is so phenomenal–160 per cent since 1990–that it can hardly be adequately displayed on a UNICEF bar chart. Between 4,000 and 5,000 children under five die in each month–mostly of simple infectious diseases that had either been eradicated or were easily cured 20 years ago–who would not die if the circumstances of mid-1990 obtained now. One in three Iraqi girls of school age do not attend school any more, staying home to be “mother” to their families as their real mothers go out to work to help sustain the household.

Since the mid-1980s the literacy rate of women has been reduced from more than 80 per cent to just over 40 per cent.

Sanctions have brought Iraq to the point where a school teacher earns about $3.00 a month–as against a semiskilled laborer who can make up to $15.00 a day.

An aid worker asked me this simple question: “What does this mean for the future of women in Iraqi society, a society where until 15 years ago they played an increasingly vital role in civil society. And how would you like to try to persuade a teenage son to be a doctor rather than a laborer?” In the gap this creates, Islam becomes an answer more than an option.

There is a disastrous lack of basic medicines; the water is foul and polluted; sanitation is at its living edge: walk into a school lavatory or a hospital lobby and you will be knocked back by the stench. Outside Baghdad, and in some of its poorer suburbs, like the vast Saddam City, power cuts are endemic. Thus an enfeebled society, lacking the basic constructs of a normal life, sees these lacks compounded. It is not that Iraqis cannot cope with this, but, as a UNICEF worker said to me, “you have to remember where they started from.” Self-respect is at a premium, and when self-respect is stamped down, as is now becoming evident in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, desperation sets in.

A member of the national assembly, a university president and an adviser at the Foreign Ministry all stressed what I had managed to take in myself, watching Iraqis trying to cope with the business of daily life: “Humiliation. The West is trying to humiliate us.”

Whether it is the rash of cybercafes in Baghdad–I peeped over the shoulder of a man downloading the latest software from the internet, and saw youngsters playing the most frighteningly intelligent computer games–or the new racks of hardware at the Baghdad University of Technology, or the laborers cheerily bringing in the corn harvest, Iraqis are determined that their ingenuity, brains and spirit will not be seen to be reduced by what they see as a sustained assault on them, and their Arab neighbors, by a punitive America.

“It will take more than 12 years of sanctions to cut us down,” said a university lecturer.

But sanctions have done more than push ordinary Iraqis to the edge of survival. It has made them not only weak, and in a large sense unquestioning of their own political leadership, it has made them even more dependent on their government than they were 10 years ago. The attempted humiliation endemic in physical life, the removal of hope and ambition, the squandering of a generation, is now enhanced by the arbitrary bombing raids of the USAAF and the RAF. I saw the results of one attack within a kilometer of the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf. I suppose the allies are careful enough not to hit the mosque itself–the last people to attack it were the forces of Saddam in 1991–but if they are that accurate, why go near it with such force? A family of seven were killed.

As the Iraqis will tell you, candidly, it is not as if the fighter-bombers cruising in from Incirlik and Kuwait have ever been in any danger themselves.

So, a society on its uppers perceives itself as maintaining its dignity in the face of outside menace, attempted humiliation, the exercise of uncaring and merciless power.

“We Iraqis like foreigners,” a political scientist told me, “but we have never liked being run by them.” (It occurred to me that in Britain these days almost the exact reverse is true.)

There is little Iraq can do to defend itself against an organized American onslaught, whether it takes the form of an intensified Operation Desert Fox, of December 1998, or a more sustained invasion bringing foreign troops to the heart of Baghdad. There can be few Iraqis who believe that, in the end, the invaders would not prevail, although at great cost on all sides.

But the key phrase is, “in the end.” The Iraqis are pleased with themselves that Saddam, at last showing the erudition he so notably lacked in 1980 and 1991, has called the American bluff. Iraq, so far, has been so devastatingly welcoming to the Hans Blix team as to be almost guilty of irony–not, as far as anyone knows, grounds for ” material breach.” By this device the Iraqis are buying the time they need and the opportunity for invasion America sees ebbing away. Co-operation has a capital ‘C’.

In 1991, a Foreign Ministry adviser told me, the Iraqis also thought that ” co-operation” would work. The Americans made it clear, however, that as fast as Saddam yielded his weaponry, nothing would suffice. As long as he was there, the details of the United Nations Security Council resolutions counted for nothing. That mentality and that perception still command in Baghdad and Washington. Cut it how one may, the West continues to make it clear that Saddam has to go.

Anyone who has studied Iraqi history and watched the way in which, even before 1958, its rulers gained and sustained power will be reluctant to believe that Saddam Hussein and scores of thousands of loyal, dependent and ruthless supporters will disappear into the void like Idi Amin, or embark on flights to sanctuary like earlier Iraqi leaders. If, as the forces of the outside world or their representatives move in for the kill, Saddam Hussein does not deploy some last surprise, then he is not the man who supervised the creation of modern Iraq and survived, so far and at his own hand, its near destruction.

April Glaspie, the last US Ambassador to Iraq, once gave me a telling-off for suggesting in a dispatch to the BBC ( in 1988 ) that many Iraqis had a sneaking regard for Saddam Hussein, despite his blunders, his cruelty and his almost psychopathically dysfunctional family. Three years later, she might have been right: in the post-Kuwait era the Iraqis saw him for the externally illiterate politico that he was, author of two national disasters.

Fortunately for Saddam, the West, with its inconsistent policies, lack of focus, dismissal of any Iraqi and/or Arab interests and heavy-handed pursuit of puritanical punishment of a helpless people, has reconstituted him as the only power in the land. It would be foolish to say he is popular; but the administrators of sanctions, the purveyors of Western moralizing, the supporters of Israel, the bombers of Najaf and Mosul, have restored him to a kind of credibility.

None of the West’s opposition figures can match him.

An Iraqi academic told me: “I can travel out of Iraq. When I go to London they come to me and say, ‘ why are you staying in Baghdad, earning $100 a month? Here, just one appearance with us on TV, telling the world how it is in Iraq, and you would have money, a Mercedes, a flat in Kensington or Georgetown what’s the matter with you?’

“I think that approach, the financial approach, to betray your country, is not one I wish to contemplate. And it says absolutely everything about the Iraqi opposition that the US and the UK are funding.”

TIM LLEWELLYN was the BBC Middle East Correspondent based in Beirut, 1976-80, and in Nicosia, 1987-92. He has covered all the major stories in the Middle East in the past quarter-century, including the Palestinian question, the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranian Revolution, the Gulf War, the Lebanese Civil War and both Israeli invasions of Lebanon. He is now a freelance writer and broadcaster on Middle East affairs, living in London. He can be reached at: