Electrician Ahmed Zamil nudged his way through a crowd of men holding a political discussion in this sprawling slum to ask what, exactly, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had received in return for the weapons-inspection accord his government signed on Monday.
The response - that the United States would probably cancel its plans to bomb Iraq - elicited a reaction of astonishment from Zamil. Then he exploded.
“That’s all? That’s it?” he shouted, flailing his arms. “After all of this, you mean they don’t end the sanctions?” Other men in the crowd murmured their agreement.
For a country whose people typically celebrate momentous occasions like peace pacts and soccer championships by shooting thousands of bullets into the sky, Iraq’s latest “victory” is being greeted by many with an altogether different reaction: stunned silence.
Although the signing of the landmark U.N. accord Monday has brought Iraq back from the brink of war, average Iraqis are only now coming to the realization it will do nothing to ease the suffering brought on by seven years of harsh economic sanctions.
“I think it is better to kill us than to keep us in this situation,” said Zamil, a bearded, 30-year-old Shiite Muslim whose wife is expecting their first child.
The reaction of Zamil and other Saddam City residents was little different from that of others interviewed in and around the Iraqi capital. But Saddam City, whose 3 million inhabitants occupy a pocket of desolation and despair, is described by international aid workers as one of the areas hardest hit by the sanctions imposed after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Children here are dying at alarming rates, U.N. officials say, because of malnutrition, disease and lack of adequate medical care caused by the sanctions.
Nationally, 1,000 children die every week as a result of malnutrition, according to the international relief organization CARE. A child stands a one-in-eight chance of dying from pneumonia, due to a nationwide lack of antibiotics.
In Saddam City, named for the Iraqi leader after a visit here in 1978, streets are clogged with decaying garbage, fetid water and street children begging for food. A taxi driver who parked his car at a busy intersection had to pay a nearby merchant to watch it, fearing it would be stripped by the time he returned.
It is a scene one might expect to see in the streets of Haiti rather than in a once-rich and prosperous Persian Gulf nation whose oil wealth commanded the world’s respect.
The call for an end to sanctions have reached such fever pitch across Iraq that President Saddam Hussein and other government leaders insisted some sort of language regarding the sanctions be inserted into Monday’s accord before Iraq would accept it, U.N. officials close to the talks said.
What Iraq got was a sentence tacked to the end of the document declaring, “The lifting of sanctions is obviously of paramount importance to the people and government of Iraq, and the secretary-general undertook to bring this matter to the full attention of the members of the Security Council.”
One U.N. official in Baghdad was more blunt: “The sanctions aren’t working. They have to change.”
But their effect is obvious to Mohammed Saddam every time he opens the door to his rug-consignment store here. He said his only customers are desperate residents who bring their household rugs for him to sell as a last-ditch effort to raise cash for food, medicine and other supplies.
“To sell a rug or any other belonging from your house is like selling something very dear to you. It is cherished. This is not something people do unless they are desperate,” he said.
A measure of their desperation is the willingness to sell a 12-by-14-foot Persian carpet for only $75 that, anywhere else in the world, would command a price of $5,000 or more.
Ali Kadil, an unemployed Gulf War veteran with six children, said he had sold all the furniture in his rented apartment. “I sold my children’s bed, so now they have to sleep on the floor. All of us have to sleep in only one room,” he said.
Elsewhere, people reportedly have been standing in line outside a Baghdad hospital to sell their kidneys for $500 each. The doctor who removes the kidneys takes a percentage of the payment, as does a middleman who resells it to a transplant hospital.
While attention here remains focused on the sanctions, others say Monday’s U.N. accord nevertheless represents a major accomplishment.
“We have reached a great victory for Iraq,” said Adil Abdullah, 40, a Baghdad poet and literary critic. “Peace, just the chance of peace, is a great victory for us.”
But Abdullah said there is a lingering fear that, although the accord was reached with Annan, the United States still carries the veto power of its military forces parked in the Persian Gulf, along with the ongoing sanctions.
“America wants a weak Iraq because Iraq is the only country in the Middle East that stands up to America. That is reason enough to drop the bombs on us,” he said.
It was clear in conversations with average Iraqis their government has not explained to them why the economic sanctions have continued for so long. Some said the sanctions were a vindictive attempt by the United States to bring Iraq into submission.
Few seemed to grasp the notion Iraq had broken international law by invading Kuwait in 1990 and then attempted over several years to hide its weapons of mass destruction and block U.N. weapons inspectors from various sites.
Nearly eight years after the Kuwait invasion, Iraqis appear to have forgotten the turmoil their nation’s military action created worldwide.
“We make one mistake, and you still punish us,” said Sabah Muhammad, an unemployed schoolteacher who was laid off after sanctions-provoked economic problems forced his school to close down.
“We are like brothers and sisters, Iraq and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. We are family,” Muhammad said. “Sometimes we fight. I don’t think this concerns you.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Child mortality Iraq, once among the richest nations in the world, currently has one of the highest child morbidity and mortality rates in the Middle East. The United Nations estimates that 1,000 children in Iraq, a country of about 23 million people, die from malnutrition each week - mostly as a result of conditions created by the sanctions.
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