In Iraq, All Sanctions, All the Time

Special to The Times

Abdel Kasim, 46, a TV and radio mechanic, noticed recently that his canary had stopped singing. The family put the cage on a sunny windowsill and gave the bird more feed, but it still refused to sing.

Kasim's wife, Lina, said: "Well, it must be the sanctions." She giggled and looked around at her husband and their four children. The joke didn't go down well. Nobody laughed.

After more than 12 years of U.N.-imposed economic sanctions, which have badly hit living standards in Iraq, everyone here talks about sanctions all the time. Their impact is used to explain almost everything.

On Dec. 30, the U.N. Security Council approved even tighter controls on Iraqi imports, including limits on doses of antibiotics that the United States and Britain say could be used to protect Iraqi troops in a war. Iraq said the move would aggravate the suffering of its people, who have been living under the sanctions since the nation invaded neighboring Kuwait in 1990.

But that tightening won't make things much worse, says Taleb Sheibani, owner of a small pharmacy in downtown Baghdad.

"We are already at the end of our fall compared to what we had in 1980," said Sheibani, a man with heavy round shoulders, thinning gray hair and big old-fashioned glasses that slide down his nose as he speaks. "In those wonderful times, my pharmacy was full of all kinds of medicines. If I didn't have something, it was a shame, and I would certainly get it the next day."

Sheibani says that during the last dozen years, he has lost track of what's going on in the pharmaceutical world. He says that there are new generations of medicines -- especially antibiotics and drugs for cancer -- that he has never heard of and that, even if he got them, he wouldn't be able to administer them properly.

Experts believe that newly restricted antibiotics such as ciprofloxacin -- sold as Cipro in the United States -- could make Iraqi troops relatively safe from the effects of anthrax if administered in large doses. Atropine, a drug prescribed for cardiac treatment, could help protect soldiers if President Saddam Hussein's regime used nerve gases in battle.

But Sheibani says he hasn't seen atropine in a long time. He stocks a cheap Syrian-made replacement for Cipro, called ciproxene, but he has only a little left.

When a customer wants birth control pills for his wife, Sheibani sadly shakes his head and watches silently as the man leaves.

But somehow, even under the sanctions, money and materials have been available for the construction of mosques.

On central Baghdad's upper-class Al Mansour Street, workers are erecting a structure about 260 feet high and 500 feet in diameter. Roofers are finishing with the towering minarets of the Al Rahman Mosque, which is going up under the auspices of an ambitious presidential program dubbed "99 Names of God." The program was approved in the mid-1990s, when the ill effects of the sanctions were perhaps greatest. Twenty mosques have already been built or are being constructed as part of the program.

Al Rahman, which will dwarf the giant Mother of All Battles Mosque just outside Baghdad, was designed to be one of the biggest houses of worship in the Arab world.

"The people's well-being is not on the priority list of the regime," said a European diplomat based in Baghdad who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The regime is solely concerned with its own survival. A huge mosque-building scheme may help the formerly secular -- almost atheist -- and socialist regime to get more fully reincorporated into the family of the Arab nations, whereas the plight of a majority of the ordinary people can be used as its propaganda shield. On the whole, it is clear that funds are really being mishandled."

Others cite the sanctions to explain the growth of attendance at mosques.

On Friday, more than 700 men took off their boots and packed the tiny, carpeted Azuya Mosque in downtown Baghdad to attend noon prayers. Twelve years ago, only a quarter as many came to pray in the Shiite mosque.

"In the times of hardships, war and sanctions, people turn to religion," said tall, white-haired, blind and very old Sheik Fadel, the imam of the mosque. "They know that God will provide for them and will defend all of them at the time of injustice and war."

Political analyst Wamidh Nadhmi, a professor at Baghdad University, says he has never seen so many Iraqis flock to mosques.

"Iraq has always been the most advanced and secular nation in the Middle East," Nadhmi said. "I think now God became our people's only alternative to pain and suffering."

A few blocks away, Akhmad Mohammed, 45, a car repair shop owner and mechanic, is doing a brisk trade.

"Sanctions are a bad thing," he said, wiping his blackened hands on a soiled apron. "But in my business, they really showed who is the real master and who is just a spare parts handler."

Elsewhere, an 8-year-old boy who cleans shoes in front of a hotel -- he can neither read nor write -- says he doesn't go to school because of the sanctions.

Electricity goes off in the capital for two hours at a time because of the sanctions, people say.

When customs officers at the airport seem to know only one word -- baksheesh -- that too is blamed on the sanctions.

"One of the worst things is that these sanctions are killing the dignity and pride of our people," Nadhmi said.

For his part, Kasim, the radio repairman and a former engineer, took his canary to a veterinarian.

"The vet said to me that the bird is sick and needs medicine, but he can't get it for me because of the sanctions," Kasim said. "I then took it to the bird market and showed it to the old man who sells canaries. He examined it very thoroughly, turned it around, sniffed under its tail and said: 'Your bird is overfed. You need to impose sanctions on her. Don't feed it for a day.' "

Kasim's bird sang happily Friday morning. All the family laughed.

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