Saddam won't die

Ten years after the Gulf War, the Iraqi leader is stronger than ever.

Published January 18, 2001 9:00PM (EST)

On a street corner in Baghdad's Sheikh Omar neighborhood, famous for auto mechanics who can fix any heap of junk, three men are stooped over on the curb, arguing over a little pile of scrap metal.

"I'll take this!" says Sabar Hassem, 35, as he snatches a mangled piece of rust from the heap. With the eye of a connoisseur, he recognizes it as an air filter from a Ford pickup truck, perhaps from the 1950s. He gleefully hands over 100 dinars, about a nickel, to the seller. "I will replace the filter and remake it for a newer model," he says. "Then I will get maybe 2,000" -- about $1.05. His day, or maybe even his week, is made.

This is Baghdad exactly 10 years after the start of the Gulf War, a city that has defiantly clung by its fingertips during a decade of Western-led sanctions and embargoes. Before the devastating bombings, Baghdad had long been the envy of the Middle East, with top-notch health care and schools. Iraqis these days have learned to live by their wits.

Ten years ago this week, Baghdad stood shattered. After 40 days of continual bombardment from American fighter jets, its bridges were bombed, its electricity stations gone, its communication tower in pieces. Operation Desert Storm, the U.S.-led attack that drove Iraqi invaders out of Kuwait, flew 110,000 sorties over Iraq and dropped 85,000 tons of explosives. By the time the allied force of 33 countries and hundreds of thousands of soldiers finally ceased blasting the country on February 22, 1991, it had endured perhaps the heaviest bombardment anywhere on Earth since the Second World War.

In the war's aftermath, the United Nations imposed sanctions over Iraq's mammoth oil revenues, in the so-called "oil for food" program, requiring President Saddam Hussein to get approval for spending Iraq's own money, and forcing most Iraqis to depend on monthly ration coupons of sugar, rice, oil and other items for their sheer survival. During a week's travels around Iraq, my taxi driver told me stories of quitting his job as a school teacher, unable to make ends meet.

Arriving here, it's hard at first to grasp the devastation of the city. Baghdad's bridges have been fixed, the shell marks cemented over and roofs retiled. The electricity works almost 24 hours a day, a dramatic improvement from just a few years ago. The streets are a jumble of stalls selling everything from plugs to paper, and most kinds of food. Despite the sanctions, those who have the cash can still get luxury items. One day I buy bananas from Colombia, and that night am offered a fine French sausage for a pre-dinner snack.

Above all, one fact dominates life in Iraq. Saddam, the man President George Bush in 1991 called "Hitler revisited," has endured the decade, too.

As the third White House administration since the Gulf War gets ready to unpack its boxes in Washington next week, the country will also see the return of key Gulf War figures Dick Cheney and Colin Powell. A nagging question looms over the administration of the man whose father prosecuted the war: If Saddam has lasted through all this, what will finally drive him out?

The Republican Party campaign platform last year promised "a comprehensive plan for the removal of Saddam Hussein." And last month, Powell declared that Saddam was "sitting on a failed regime," and was "not going to be around in a few years' time." As secretary of state, Powell said he would "re-energize" the international embargoes, he said.

Judging from a week in Iraq, Powell has an extremely tough task ahead.

International compliance with the sanctions has steadily weakened, and many countries, especially Jordan and Syria, have reopened major trade connections with Iraq in recent months. Meanwhile, countries such as France and Russia have long pressured the U.N. to end the sanctions, saying they only serve to deprive ordinary Iraqis of food and medicine and do nothing to weaken Saddam.

In fact, top Iraqi officials and diplomats say Saddam enjoys greater support within his country than he did before the war. Some of this is because he uses his vast wealth to buy favors. But Saddam has also gained stature as the figure who could face down Western attacks -- and live to tell the tale. "He is as popular now as he has been at any time in the past," Nizar Hamdoon, undersecretary of the Foreign Ministry, who served as ambassador to Washington during the 1980s and to the United Nations in New York during the 1990s, tells me from his office. "When a country feels pressures economically and from outside, they gather around the central figure. And in Iraq, the central figure has always been the president."

Travel around Iraq, and there is little doubt who is in charge. The 350-mile drive linking Baghdad to the old Gulf War frontline on the Kuwait border meanders past numerous military posts, some with their tanks pointed outward in all directions, and their walls decorated with Saddam's portrait.

Baghdad is plastered with the many faces of the man in bronze, oil, plaster, and mosaic, on horses and off, waving, smiling, tenderly visiting poor traditional families, typing, sipping tea, bending over sick patients, and even hovering in the sky over a rural village scene, in a Chagall-like panorama I spy in a wing of the Saddam Art Gallery. "He is often portrayed as a symbol for all of Iraq," explains my government "guide," who is required to accompany me during all interviews, even in a gallery.

In one room, artist Mejdi Ahmed, 32, shows me his three modern paintings on sale, all abstract modern works. But like all of Baghdad's artists' community, Ahmed's real income for the past decade has come from painting Saddam portraits -- about 30 of them since 1990. "It pays well," he says. "Many are in the government offices."

In fact, the only non-Saddam portrait I see all week is that of George Bush. After the Gulf War Bush's face was installed in mosaic tiles into the entrance floor of the Al-Rasheed Hotel, the country's top lodging which is, of course, government-owned. For nearly 10 years, every journalist, businessman and politician in Baghdad has stomped on Bush's blue eyes. The caption: "Bush is Criminal."

Tales of Saddam's ruthlessness and profligacy abound, and the slightest hint of dissent is instantly punished; thousands have been executed or jailed. Most of the Iraq opposition, which the U.S. counted on to rise up after the war and depose Saddam, has been driven out of the country or destroyed.

Saddam himself is more ubiquitous than ever. A Western diplomatic internal memo late last year estimated Saddam had built about 46 new palaces since 1990. They include a sprawling complex near the airport, more Las Vegas than Baghdad, with an artificial lake and a golden bust of Saddam on one corner. You can see it all from the revolving rooftop restaurant of the Saddam Tower of Challenge, the former communication tower that U.S. bombers obliterated in 1991. Outside the tower, a huge Saddam statue features the leader triumphantly standing over the bomb shrapnel.

Iraqis might chafe at Saddam's stranglehold, but both ordinary Iraqis and top officials I interview say life has improved markedly in the past few years, and that international sanctions are withering. Syria, for instance, recently announced the reopening of its oil pipeline with Iraq. "Practically, the sanctions regime is crumbling," says Hamdoon. "People and businesses are doing business with Iraq, regardless."

In fact, years of sanctions have bred wealth from those smuggling hard-to-get goods into the country, skirting the West's rules. At Sardar's car dealership in Baghdad last Sunday, two workers washed down a brand-new blue-green Dodge Durango sports-utility vehicle, which still had its American yellow warning label hanging from the air-bag cover. "That will go for about $35,000. It is the only one in all of Iraq," says Sardar Hussein Hassan, 32, a Rolex on his wrist, in his showroom filled mostly with Mercedes Benzes.

After years of being eerily empty, Baghdad's giant Saddam International Airport -- the Middle East's biggest airport when it was built in 1982 -- has been dusted off in the past two months, for flights around the Middle East. Commercial airline service between Iraq and Jordan has resumed.

On my 10-hour drive from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad, the 600-mile stretch of highway was jammed with trucks carrying goods into Iraq, away from the prying eyes of United Nations officials. Streaming toward Iraq in front of us were three trailers, loaded with factory-new Mercedes Benz sedans. The traffic headed out of Iraq shows why: tankers loaded with cut-rate oil from the second biggest oil fields in the world, after Saudi Arabia.

Officially, Iraq pumps about 2 million barrels a day. Even with the sanctions in place, about 40 percent of that is consumed by gas-guzzling American consumers. But oil sources last month estimated Saddam was earning about $1 billion extra, trucking oil overland to Jordan and Syria, where it disappears on the world market, with its profits going straight to Baghdad, bypassing nosey international officials. At the end of 1999, too, the U.N. Security Council finally lifted the quotas on how much oil Iraq was permitted to sell. For Saddam, the timing was extraordinary. Oil prices soared last year to their highest level since 1990, leaving Saddam with a huge windfall of billions of dollars.

In meetings with reporters this week, officials boasted about their success in smuggling out oil. "Our economy isn't linked to the Security Council," oil minister General Amer Muhammad Rashid said when I asked about the smuggling estimates. "We have our own bilateral trade relations, and we have full rights to manage this."

Despite the top-level money making, most Iraqis continue to endure dramatic poverty. U.S. and British officials point out that Saddam has squandered billions of government money bolstering a tiny elite, while Iraqis say the West has deliberately impoverished their country's people through sanctions.

The statistics of the poverty, however, are not disputed. Healthcare has plummeted in 10 years. UNICEF believes about 500,000 children die every year from various diseases that they would not have died of if sanctions weren't in place. Hospitals say they are chronically short of medicines and equipment, all of which have to be approved for purchase by U.N. officials. "In the 1980s, I would teach my students about tuberculosis and malnutrition theoretically, from books," Sami Delami, 62, a pediatrics consultant, tells me in his office at the Saddam Children's Hospital. "Now we have many cases here."

One day, I step inside a tiny house that backs onto a bus lot. Inside, Gulperi Abdul Beg, 45, invites me to sit on a mat on the floor of the main room, whose windows are plastic sheeting. The glass shattered in the 1991 bombing, and Beg has not had the money to replace them since. "I'm sorry you are sitting on the floor," she says, handing me a glass of water for refreshment. "We have sold all the furniture."

When the bombs began dropping in 1991, middle-class Iraqis were among the highest paid groups in the Middle East. A civil servant earned about $2,000 a month, and a university professor made about $5,000 a month. One dollar bought 1.5 Iraqi dinars a decade ago. Now, civil servants earn less than $25 a month, and when I change $50 -- at 1,800 dinars per dollar -- I am given a large shopping bag in which to lug the piles of notes.

"You will not believe it, but we used to go on holiday in Europe, and return with money still in our pockets," one Iraqi photographer tells me. "We felt like kings." And so, professional Iraqis have fled in droves: about 2 million now live outside, including hundreds of thousands in the United States, many of whom are "the cream of our country," says Nizar Hamdoon, the Foreign Ministry undersecretary.

In a vague attempt to staunch Iraq's intellectual starvation, the government finally tiptoed into the Internet age last summer, opening two "Internet cafes" in Baghdad, hooked to Iraq's sole server -- which is government-controlled. It was the first glimpse Iraqis had of the technology to which even African villages had been hooked to for a few years.

In one of the government-run cafes, 18 terminals on two floors offer one hour of service to each user, for about a dollar -- not a small sum for Iraqis these days. In front of one terminal, Qabas Awad, 28, tells me she had traveled four hours by taxi from her home in Mosul, simply to log on to a site about British taxation law. "I'm a student," she said, her hair hidden by a scarf. "The books we are using are at least 10 years old."

Sexual sites are blocked, and users probably suppress any thought of logging on to exiled Iraq opposition group sites while the staff prowl the floors. Downstairs are four terminals reserved for those who already have paid e-mail subscriptions, typically government departments and companies. No one had heard of a single private citizen with e-mail. "I went there and said I wanted to check my Hotmail," one Iraqi television producer told me later. "They told me it was illegal."

Despite all that, there is a constant line of people waiting for a free computer, and Sana al-Ukabi, 24, a staff member, says she is so busy teaching people how to use the Internet that she has no time to log on herself.

So, what are the popular sites for users? She laughed, and said: "Anything that is different from here."

And that, despite sanctions fraying at the edges, is still a lot better than here.

By Vivienne Walt

Vivienne Walt is a frequent contributor to Salon. She was recently on assignments in Russia, Zimbabwe and Iran.

MORE FROM Vivienne Walt

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Dick Cheney Iraq Middle East United Nations