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$20 Payday at Zoo Is Seen as Start of Something Big

The U.S. hopes the small and belated payments to animal keepers and millions of other Iraqis will help spark the nation's economy.

May 06, 2003|Mark Fineman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — War and its aftermath hit hard at the Baghdad Zoo.

A U.S. missile blew open the lion cage, sending a small pride on a rampage. Some of the cats were corralled, but two had to be shot. The ponies were collateral damage, their bodies strewn in the cages where they fell.

Then came the looters. They rounded up hundreds of birds and other rare animals, which are now on sale at Baghdad's Friday market. The ostriches were eaten. Somebody even made off with the baby giraffe. Of the 650 zoo denizens before the war, just a dozen or so remain.

For the last month, the zoo's 35 keepers have worked without pay to restore what they could.

On Monday, the Pentagon arrived with a little relief.

U.S. troops delivered a tiny cash box to the zoo's director, who handed out $20 in U.S. currency in small bills to the lion trainer, the monkey keeper and even two Baath Party officials who had managed the zoo for Saddam Hussein for the last 13 years.

From nurses to teachers to zookeepers, the vast majority of Iraq's 3.3 million government workers and pensioners haven't received their usual payments since the war began. The U.S. Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance is working to put $20 in the hands of every Iraqi civil servant and, in the words of American advisors, "jump-start the Iraqi economy."

With most of the capital's police force yet to see a dime, even some U.S. officials at Monday's ceremony acknowledged that showcasing payments to zookeepers seemed a bit strange -- even if it is part of larger efforts to get Iraq back on its feet.

"It's pure, serendipitous concatenation of circumstances," said Tim Carney, senior advisor to Iraq's Industries Ministry. "It's just the ability to do it here."

At the zoo, the handouts received mixed reviews.

"Twenty dollars is rubbish," griped monkey keeper Ethafa Hussein, who has spent 30 of his 50 years working with the baboons and chimps. The payout was less than half his normal monthly wage. "I have 13 members in my family. This won't last a week."

Hisham Mohammed Hussein, deputy zoo director and self-declared former member of the Baath Party, preferred to quote an Arabic proverb as he tucked his $20 into a shirt pocket. "Rain begins with a single drop," he said.

These days, Iraq needs a deluge -- and fast. In addition to the millions of people who have not received their salaries and pensions from the government, 60% of Iraq's population was fully dependent on food rations before the war started. Those handouts have been suspended.

U.S. officials readily acknowledge that the $20 payouts are merely emergency stipends that fall well short of meeting many civil servants' needs.

"This was an economy that was driven into the ground for 25 years. It has been neglected and filled with all sorts of distortions," said David Nummy, a Treasury Department official now serving as senior U.S. advisor to a new Iraqi Finance Ministry the reconstruction agency is helping create.

The agency plans to begin paying full salaries soon, Nummy said. But those "distortions" -- the result of massive government subsidies and confounding bonus systems unique to each ministry -- are so complex that U.S. officials here have yet to calculate fair dollar equivalents.

One figure U.S. officials have tallied is the cost of looting at the nation's banks. Iraq's two largest state-run banks together lost nearly a half-billion dollars in U.S. currency, plus 23 billion Iraqi dinars -- about $11.5 million. Presumably, that money is finding its way into the economy.

Nummy said all the money for the $20 payments is from $1.7 billion in Iraqi government assets the U.S. Treasury Department froze in American banks.

So far, he said, the U.S. has given $20 to each of about 500,000 government workers nationwide, 30,000 of them in Baghdad. He said the one-time payouts will total $66 million.

About $160,000 was handed over Saturday to pay some doctors and nurses in the capital. But the majority of Iraq's police officers and civil servants are still waiting. In most cases, the delay has been blamed on Iraqi officials' inability to supply lists of workers' names.

The zoo staff may have been fortunate in that its workplace abuts the massive palace compound that houses the U.S. reconstruction office's headquarters and key U.S. military headquarters. Although most of the U.S. officials present at Monday's ceremony probably didn't realize it, the zoo was, in fact, a vital facility in Hussein's Iraq.

In a world of hurt and horror, it was an oasis. It lies in the heart of a sprawling urban park called Amusement City, complete with carnival rides, fountains and kebab stands.

Young couples kissed in the shadows of the zoo's palms. Families strolled by the cages, the children pointing and gaping at giraffes and apes with glee. Parents, too, would stand and stare, some confiding to foreigners that through the years they gained comfort here.

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