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|Reality, If Not Normality|
|10/01/02 at 07:42:43|
Letter From Iraq
Reality, If Not Normality
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 1, 2002; Page A01
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Sept. 30 -- As the Iraqi Airways Boeing 747 lifted off and banked to the east, the captain took to the public-address system with details of the day's flight. Destination: Basra. Flight time: 50 minutes. Cruising altitude: 25,000 feet. Sit back. Relax. Enjoy the flight.
What went unmentioned, but was eminently obvious to everyone on board, was that the plane would be flying straight through about 150 miles of airspace designated by the United States and Britain as a "no-fly" zone. Any Iraqi plane that crosses the 32nd parallel, which was just a few minutes away, is in theory fair game for U.S. and British fighters.
"Don't worry," said Ali Hussein, a suave young man assigned by the Information Ministry to escort foreign journalists through Iraq. "They've been flying this route twice a day for months and nothing's gone wrong."
Nobody else in the first-class cabin of the creaky, nearly three-decade-old jumbo jet seemed the least bit fazed. Flight attendants passed out sweet tea and weak coffee. People peeled open newspapers. After living under debilitating economic sanctions and threats since the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Iraqis have a threshold for concern that is not what you might expect elsewhere.
In fact, it is practically impossible to find an Iraqi who is making any personal arrangements for coping with war with the United States. That is partly because Iraqis often depend on food rations. But people just laugh when asked if they keep a little extra food and water on hand or if they think about heading out of town.
"If we went shopping every time the Americans threatened us, we would always be at the market," said Taha Mahmud Fatah, 39, a jeweler in the northern city of Mosul.
Iraqis say their attitude is born not out of fatalism or foolishness, but a desire to live what several people here call "a normal life."
It is hard to know what normal is after more than two decades of war and sanctions. This is a place where most government employees make less than $3 a month. The rich use plastic bags as wallets because the largest denomination bill is worth 12 1/2 cents. The government says it cannot afford to build new schools, but there are no taxes on cigarettes.
"The government doesn't want to tax a tranquilizer," one chain-smoking Iraqi explained.
It was not always this way. Before 1980, when President Saddam Hussein launched a costly eight-year war with Iran, Iraq was deemed by the United Nations to be one of the world's fastest-developing countries. Hussein spent a greater portion of oil revenue on social programs than any other Arab leader.
Mandatory childhood education and free night classes for adult women increased the literacy rate to nearly 80 percent. Hospitals were stocked with medicines and equipment was imported from Europe. All sorts of products, whether Italian shoes or Japanese television sets, were subsidized by the government. Even mid-level civil servants could afford to take their families on vacations to Paris, London and Rome -- destinations once served by Iraqi Airways.
"We had a life that was as good as any European's," said Khalid Hassan, 54, a government employee. "Everything was in our reach."
Baghdad began to look like a large city in the American Southwest, dry and flat, sprawling and scorching, with four-lane expressways and elevated roads. Tall hotels and limestone-walled government ministries sprouted, as did trendy shopping areas and fancy restaurants. Because of generous loans offered by the government and because gasoline was nearly free, many residents bought new cars.
By some estimates, Iraq suffered 375,000 casualties in the war with Iran; billions of dollars in oil revenue was diverted to pay for it. When the war finally ended, in 1988, people hoped for a return to prosperity, but in 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, starting a second debilitating war and bringing on tight U.N. economic sanctions.
The economy went to pieces. With tax revenue scarce, officials opted to print more money to pay salaries, sparking massive inflation. Middle-class families sold everything they had -- cars, rugs, jewelry. The markets of Baghdad came to have one of the world's greatest collections of pawned watches, pens and household curios.
Multinational firms pulled out, and infant mortality, malnutrition and disease expanded. Children quit school in droves to help their parents put food on the table. "It has been de-development," said Margaret Hassan, country director for the aid organization Care International.
But Iraqis never stopped trying for that "normal life."
PepsiCo may have left Iraq, but Iraqis continue to guzzle sweet, brown, fizzy liquid that comes in Pepsi bottles. The bottling plants are now run by Iraqis, who have tried with surprising success to duplicate the genuine article.
It is the same story for Sheraton Hotels. Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., the chain's parent company, no longer operates any properties here. But that is not at all evident at the imposing Basra Sheraton. The cashier there still stamps a Sheraton logo on each bill.
The Basra airport, a cavernous building designed to accommodate thousands of international travelers, has reopened -- to handle two domestic flights a day. The duty-free shop, too, has come back to life, hawking perfumes, spirits and an odd assortment of leather jackets to Baghdad-bound travelers.
Getting out of the country no longer requires a 10-hour road trip to the Jordanian capital, Amman. Royal Jordanian Airlines now zips into Baghdad four times a week. And a charter carrier called Gulf Air Falcon flies to Syria using a 747 that is unmarked except for an Arabic inscription stating, "We fly by the grace of God."
Even television suggests normality. Recent Hollywood movies often are broadcast on the public airwaves. They're pirated, of course, but nobody has any shame about it. "We're already called a rogue nation," said one Iraqi video merchant. "What difference does it make?"
Today, Baghdad's markets are almost as well stocked as they were before sanctions, thanks to vibrant smuggling rackets with neighboring countries. There are late-model Pentium-powered computers from Jordan, ice-cream bars from Syria, cosmetics from Turkey, Coke from Saudi Arabia and electronics from Asia by way of the United Arab Emirates.
Iraqi officials make no apologies about flouting the sanctions. "If somebody wants to kill you, should you accept this?" said Trade Minister Mohammed Mehdi Saleh.
On Thursday morning, warplanes from the U.S.-British coalition attacked a radar installation at Basra airport. The Pentagon contends the radar tracked coalition aircraft, but Iraq says it was used only for civil aviation. Iraq accused the United States of a similar attack on Sunday. Now, officials here said, the Iraqi Airways planes will have to land at Basra without radar. But that still does not worry Iraqi travelers.
"After all we've been through, this is nothing," said an Iraqi journalist who is planning to fly to Basra soon. "It is normal."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company
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