WASHINGTON — Like a giant anaconda slowly and relentlessly squeezing its prey, the world's most sweeping international embargo is tightening its grip around Iraq. "The countdown has begun," a senior U.S. official says confidently. "It's just a matter of time."
Yet the outside world may have to wait longer than many analysts expect for the blockade to squeeze the last breath of resistance from Baghdad--provided the rising level of rhetoric and the frustration over the foreign captives don't flare into conflict first.
Unlike other oil-rich Persian Gulf nations, Iraq has placed its highest priority on developing a more independent agricultural and industrial base. But it still imports goods large and small from around the world--cotton, medicine and razor blades from Egypt, beef from Argentina, dairy products from Ireland, grain from the United States and Australia, fresh produce and cooking oil from Turkey, cars, steel and television sets from Japan, and everything from matches to warplanes from the Soviet Union.
But Iraq's most vulnerable side is its dependence on food imports: A full 80% of everything that Iraqis eat comes from abroad.
And, besides the pressure to replenish stocks of bullets and ballistic missiles, Iraq's biggest challenge in the face of the Western sanctions will be to fill the stomachs of more than 17 million Iraqis, tens of thousands of foreign workers and captives who are trapped in Baghdad, and the million-plus residents and foreigners in Kuwait, U.S. and private analysts agree.
Even the most optimistic estimates give Iraq two to six months of survival on its current food reserves. First will come the shortages. Then, rationing. And finally--over the long term--could come actual starvation.
But the impact is likely to be uneven. U.S. estimates show that Baghdad had a 115-day stockpile of rice in July, but only a nine-day supply of corn, which is mainly needed to feed livestock. The country's sugar stocks should last only about 20 days.
The slow strangulation is already being felt. In a dramatic acknowledgment of the embargo's impact, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein last week publicly appealed for his countrymen to eat less. Baghdad bakeries have stopped making pastries. And despite threats of severe punishment for hoarders, stores in the Iraqi capital were mobbed last weekend as panicked shoppers rushed to buy up huge sacks of flour, sugar and other basic goods. In occupied Kuwait, the bread lines are four hours long.
How long Hussein can survive politically as conditions deteriorate also may defy the odds, according to the limited Western intelligence available.
"Most of the opposition is abroad, in prison or in the ground," a U.S. analyst concedes. While Iraq's restive Kurds in the north and its Shiite majority in the south have long been hotbeds of dissent, the only two groups strong enough to mount an effective challenge to Hussein are the Revolutionary Command Council and the military, which have served as his power bases since he became Iraq's president in 1979.
The Bush Administration's implicit strategy has banked on the worsening economic squeeze to foment enough opposition inside Iraq to bring on the overthrow of Hussein--prompting Iraq to retreat from Kuwait and eliminating the threat of future Iraqi adventurism.
Initially, U.S. officials were ecstatic about how quickly the embargo began to take hold. America's allies cooperated in deploying a multinational fleet almost immediately. And Turkey and Saudi Arabia lost no time in closing the Iraqi oil pipelines in their countries.
But Riad Ajami, professor of international management at Ohio State University and author of a new report on the Iraqi economy, asserts that for all the Western efforts, Iraq may not begin to feel any real pain for 45 to 60 days.
Part of the reason is that Iraqis are relatively well fed. The average Iraqi eats 3,000 calories a day--a very high rate of food consumption compared to Third World countries. "Iraqis don't begin at the level of Bangladeshis or Mozambicans," an Administration economist says.
Analysts say that how long the initial period of shortages lasts will depend on three factors--the amount of goods that Iraq has stockpiled, the size of the country's next harvest and the amount of storage capacity that will be available for foodstuffs.
"There's evidence that this (Iraqi invasion of Kuwait) was planned months ahead," says William B. Quandt, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was a National Security Council staff member during the Jimmy Carter Administration. "Saddam (as Hussein is widely known in the Middle East) has been able to plan for things for some time, and he must have anticipated at least a partial embargo."
Baghdad has been spending almost $2 billion a year just for food imports--four times the value of its food exports. And virtually everything it buys is essential: wheat, rice, flour, sugar, milk, eggs, beef, chicken and livestock feed.