Saddam's Long Shadow

The revolving restaurant on the bright blue communications tower is a good vantage point for observing Baghdad and some of its many contradictions. Destroyed in the gulf war, it was rebuilt in 1994 and renamed the Saddam Tower. "We made it 108 meters high, so it would be 8 meters higher than the Tower of London," says Uday al-Faie, editor in chief of the Iraqi News Agency. Why bother to top London's tower? "Because it was a British plane that destroyed it," he says. These days, the restaurant revolves fitfully, if at all.

Down below, the once mighty Tigris River has been shrunk by two years of drought--one of the few problems official Iraq doesn't blame on United Nations sanctions. As the restaurant revolves eastward, a huge compound of nearly finished buildings comes into view. The compound is so big, and the sputtering tower so slow, that 20 minutes pass before all of it is visible. The guide assigned by the Ministry of Information nervously professes to have no idea what the mammoth complex is for. It is, of course, yet another of Saddam Hussein's palaces. With his people suffering from sanctions, Saddam is on a spending spree. And not just Saddam. In the revolving restaurant, one dinner costs about a month's salary for a government worker. Yet there are plenty of patrons.

Ten years after Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait and started the gulf war, the conflict still isn't over. Punitive sanctions remain in force, blocking most exports and imports until Iraq allows U.N. weapons inspectors to resume their work. The sanctions haven't made Saddam back down, but they have been devastating to ordinary Iraqis. Because of chronic malnutrition and a shortage of medicine, 500,000 more Iraqi children have died under sanctions than would have been expected from prewar trends, according to UNICEF studies. Saddam, 63, rules most of the ground with an iron hand, but he can't even control his own airspace. U.S. and British warplanes enforce no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq in a partly successful attempt to protect local rebels. So far, the Iraqis have failed to shoot down a single allied plane, though they keep trying.

To most Americans, the gulf war is a fading memory--a short-lived triumph followed by years of gnawing suspicions that the victory may have been hollow. President George Bush, who organized the coalition that expelled Saddam from Kuwait in 1991, was voted out of office less than two years later. Now his son is running for president, and George W. Bush doesn't talk much about getting tough with Saddam, perhaps for fear of having to make good on any threats. "Bush could get into a 'read my lips' syndrome," says one of his father's former advisers. Al Gore isn't beating his chest about Iraq, either. The Clinton administration struggles to maintain the sanctions, hoping that eventually someone--preferably a mainstream Sunni strongman from central Iraq--will end the stalemate by getting rid of Saddam.

There's no sign of that happening soon. "After 10 years, Saddam Hussein is stronger than ever, and the government is more stable than ever," says A. K. al-Hashimi, who runs an ostensibly nongovernmental group called the Organization of Friendship, Peace and Solidarity. An international agency official, no fan of Saddam's, agrees. "Sanctions haven't accomplished their aim, which was to weaken the regime," he says. "Instead, they've strengthened it." The government remains very much a family business. Saddam's chosen successor appears to be his older son, Uday, 35, a notorious thug who is still recovering from wounds sustained in a 1996 assassination attempt. Another son, Qusay, 33, runs the secret police and other security forces and could be a less controversial contender for the succession.

Internal opposition seems to have been completely suppressed, and while the Kurds in the north remain quasi-independent, Saddam's control elsewhere is total. In the south, the vast marshes where Shiite Arabs mounted an insurgency after Iraq's defeat in Kuwait have been drained, depriving the rebels of cover. Overseas, Iraqi exile groups have feuded so much with each other that the Clinton administration has yet to release most of the $97 million Congress voted for them. Last week, one group, the Iraqi National Accord, pulled out of the U.S.-backed exile coalition.

Now U.S. allies and some officials in Washington are arguing for "smart" or "targeted" sanctions. An example would be to penalize the regime's leaders with travel bans or freezes on overseas bank accounts, which would not hurt ordinary citizens. The U.N. Security Council has already greatly softened the sanctions. When Iraq verged on famine in 1996, an "Oil for Food" program was begun. Iraq was allowed to sell some oil, putting the proceeds into a U.N.-administered account, to verify it was being spent properly. Later, the program was expanded to include other humanitarian purchases.

But Oil for Food has not been able to stop an alarming decline in health, especially among children. Every Iraqi receives a food basket paid for by the program, but many end up selling the food because there is little cash for anything else. The Iraqi dinar has collapsed so badly that most salaries are worth less than $10 a month. The result is that one in five Iraqi children is chronically malnourished, to the point where growth is stunted. "Chronic malnutrition is extremely difficult to reverse," says the local UNICEF head, Anu Pama Rao Singh. She says the country faces "a lost generation," not only due to poor health, but because schools have deteriorated so badly.

At the same time there is such opulence in Iraq that it's hard to stir up much interest among foreign-aid donors. Oil smuggling keeps Saddam, his relatives and his supporters well heeled. Stores in the elite shopping districts of Baghdad are crammed with luxury goods, and there seems to be plenty of customers. Smuggling revenues have also helped the Iraqis rebuild their monuments, if not their schools. A mosque claimed to be the largest in the world is going up in the middle of Baghdad--a building so big it will be visible from space. The city abounds with statues of Saddam in every conceivable costume, and portraits of the dictator adorn every government office and most street corners.

The palaces are another sign of excess. No one knows how many there are now; Saddam had 19 when weapons inspectors were last here in 1996, and many more have gone up since--apparently for family and cronies, as well as Saddam. "These palaces don't belong to Saddam himself," insists al-Faie. "Every single man in Iraq has the right to go to the palaces here."

The Big Lie thrives in Baghdad, where local news media are totally controlled. Iraqis insist, for example, that they won the gulf war. "The [U.S.] Seventh Corps was surrounded, and a disaster was going to take place," says al-Hashimi. "Bush was forced to ask for the ceasefire." The U.S. goal was to take Baghdad, depose Saddam and seize Iraq's oil reserves, he adds. That was never the objective, says Brent Scowcroft, President Bush's national-security adviser during the war. "We had absolutely no support at the time for [going all the way to Baghdad], either from our allies or the Arab nations," he says. In hindsight, Scowcroft's one regret is that the ground war didn't go on for "another 24 hours or so," in order to destroy Saddam's Republican Guard. On balance, Scowcroft argues that "Iraq is less of a threat to the region than it was 10 years ago. It's clear their Army has not much offensive capability. It's clear that they do not yet have a nuclear capability."

But no one in Washington believes Saddam has given up his ambition to build weapons of mass destruction. The former boss of the U.N. weapons inspectors, Richard Butler, told Israel's Knesset last week that the Iraqis have the expertise to build a nuclear weapon within a year, provided they could get the raw materials. Ending the sanctions would give Saddam vastly increased oil revenues and freedom from import controls, making it easier for him to buy the nuclear supplies he needs. Because of that, the current ugly stalemate--half war, half peace--may drag on indefinitely. There seems to be little relief in sight for Saddam's long-suffering people.