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Poor Suffer as Iraqi Elite Dodge Sanctions' Pain


TIKRIT, Iraq — The worldwide sanctions against this nation are biting so hard, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's cousin complained the other day, that he can't get medicine to ease his upset stomach or pesticide for his citrus crops. Even the ruling family, he contends, isn't immune.

"We don't receive any special things," said Abdul Rashid, the cousin, as he sat at his desk beneath a wall clock superimposed on a Hussein photograph. "We are all just Iraqi citizens."

But as the bearded 39-year-old spoke, he delicately smoked a succession of cigarettes from a pack imported in violation of the United Nations embargo. Later, he departed in his new, sanctions-busting black Mercedes-Benz, cruising past the broken-down vehicles of ordinary Iraqis on the streets here.

Although five years of U.N. sanctions designed to bring Hussein to heel have taken a huge toll on ordinary Iraqis, they have had little effect on the president's large extended family or the 1 million or more Iraqis with political ties to the ruling party.

Worse, they have created a new class of Iraqi profiteers, among them the political elite whose wealth now depends on sanctions. Diplomats in Iraq these days maintain that most smuggling, black-market currency transactions and illegal oil exports are controlled by Hussein's clan and members of his Arab Baath Socialist Party.

"It's true that a certain group of people--mostly traders--has flourished under sanctions," said a European ambassador in Baghdad. "Only the average Iraqi wage-earner, who must rely entirely on his paycheck, is in deep trouble. His money just doesn't add up."

In this country of 18 million, the envoy added, there is a distinct elite of people close to power "and, although the general situation is getting worse, it is not so bad for them."

All that may help explain why Baghdad has been so slow to fully meet U.N. conditions for removing sanctions, which were imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait, triggering the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

"Though many people still dislike Saddam Hussein, there also are a lot of people who have bought into the regime," said an American official who watches Iraq from Europe. "They make their money on the few goodies that are left. And it is those people who benefit from keeping Saddam in power."

To be sure, the effects of the embargo are evident across Iraq. U.N. sanctions limit Iraqi oil sales to about 15% of pre-Gulf War levels and prohibit the import of everything except food, medicine and humanitarian goods.

A government survey has indicated that half the country's civil servants have taken on second jobs to make ends meet. A U.N. report released last month shows a clear impact on children, with cases of malnutrition-related disease rising from 433 in 1990 to 20,544 so far this year and the percentage of babies with low birth weights increasing from 5% in 1990 to 22% this year.

Yet the marketplaces and fancy shopping areas of Baghdad, the capital, are bursting with a wide variety of imported goods--from computers to lingerie, brass trumpets to videocassette recorders--that have arrived overland from Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, even Iran, a longtime enemy of Iraq.

The prices, though, reflect the difficult journey to market. Most are beyond the means of middle-class Iraqis, whose average salary of $1 a month is barely enough to buy two pounds of flour. Most people manage to get by thanks only to government food ration cards, which provide about half their daily requirements.

In fact, the only thing that is cheap in Iraq, which sits atop the world's second-largest reserve of oil and natural gas, is gasoline; a tankful costs about half a U.S. cent.

Inflation is galloping at 10% a month; the value of the Iraqi dinar against hard currencies required to buy imports has fallen 75% in the past year alone. The availability and high prices have bred broad resentment of merchants, once part of a highly esteemed class in Iraqi society.

"Some of these people are completely corrupt," said Amal Khedary, a Baghdad resident. "People used to be proud to say, 'My father is a merchant.' Now they are ashamed to say it."

In the midst of this suffering, two groups of people are flourishing--the country's 4 million peasant farmers, who have found sudden demand for domestically grown food, and those Iraqis fortunate enough to be close to the political power structure.

The advantages of political and family connections are nowhere more evident than in Tikrit, a wind-swept town about a two-hour drive north of Baghdad.

At the entry to Tikrit is a large stone monument to the leader, which features an elaborate portrait of Hussein, pistol raised triumphantly in the air.

This is where he went to school before becoming a political revolutionary, and where his birthday is celebrated every year with great fanfare. At the Tikrit Secondary School for Boys, a worn record book shows that the 16-year-old Hussein won high marks for everything from mathematics to "behavior."

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