Within minutes the attendant appeared, asking for the foreigners' names and writing down the car registration number. Both teacher and attendant wore the tell-tale insignia of the ruling Baath Socialist Party.
In this Saddam City suburb every house and head of household is watched by party technocrats, often retired civil servants earning a little extra by informing on their neighbours. Poverty and unemployment have reached epidemic proportions and every institution is under strain. Crumbling schools report absenteeism rates of 30 per cent. Petty crime is ever-present. If there is to be a revolt against the ruling regime, it could well start here.
But any thought of dissent alarms Mahmood, a street vendor who has fallen on hard times, like most of his neighbours. "I have to pledge loyalty to the party. Any sign of disobedience and my monthly card would be taken away."
The card he speaks of entitles him to a ration of 9kg of rice, 2.5kg of flour and cooking oil, without which he could not survive. He has to collect the food on a specific day or lose his ration. He resents the power of his local official. "If there were a revolution, that guy would be chopped into a thousand pieces and thrown into the river," he said, drawing his finger across his throat. The rations were introduced to mitigate the worst effects of sanctions, which have been in place for eight years. Outside the north, where the United Nations administers rationing, the long arm of the government reaches into the home of every citizen.
The government has renewed the oil-for-food programme, whereby Iraqi oil is sold and the money used by UN agencies, in co-operation with Baghdad, to supply the basic ration. Since 1996 the regime has rebuilt its structure and reinforced its grip on vital institutions, say envoys in Baghdad.
Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan told the new UN humanitarian co-ordinator, Hans van Sponeck, that the government was keen to expand on the programme's success. "Both parties [UN and government] need to co-operate better, since the deal forms the basic pillar of this government's success," the Babil daily paper quoted Mr Ramadan as saying.
Despite all the noise created by the government over sanctions, the ruling elite has found the isolation caused by the embargo useful in keeping an eye on dissidents and intellectuals. Through the rationing system, people with "ideas" can be closely monitored.
"I could leave and get a job in a university in Egypt or Yemen or even in the West, but my family is here and they would suffer," said Barzan, an academic who relies on the government hand-out. "There might even be reprisals." His salary before the Gulf War was worth more than $5,000 a month. Now it barely covers the cost of transport. "I'm exhausted, but l must carry on for the sake of my family."
Pointing to the house of the Baath organiser in his street, he said: "He knows everything about me. He knows what time I come home and what my family eat."
It is difficult for such an educated man to accept the attentions of a semi-literate party hack and he can take little comfort in academic pursuits when times are so hard. "I haven't seen an up-to-date academic journal for almost 10 years - just the rubbish produced by the Information Ministry. You can't build a Scud missile with a literary journal. Why don't [UN sanctions officials] allow these journals in?" said Barzan, referring to the ban on dealings of any sort with Iraqi institutions. Under the embargo, exporting even The Beano to Iraq is illegal.
Regulations reinforce the dependency and the stranglehold of the regime. Moving around the country is no longer possible with the government controlling the food supply: rations are dispensed only at the home base of the head of household.
At the crumbling 28th of April Shopping Centre, named after the revolution that brought President Saddam Hussein's party to power, civil servants collect extra rations. They are rewarded with 10kg of rice, flour, soap and detergent. Outside, guards try vainly to prevent workers selling their extra rations. "I sell my rice and flour to the local baker. He shares the profit with me. It is a good arrangement," said a civil servant and Baath member who gave his name as Nabeel. "I have used the money to buy the car," he said, pointing to a jalopy, which provides yet more supplementary income. "I take all civil servants in my area to work ... We go home in the evening and they pay me every month." Like all party members, Nabeel regularly has to fill out a political- education diary on everyone he knows. It is a wide circle of colleagues at work, customers for his taxi service and clients for his rations. Sanctions have created the perfect opportunity for him both to prosper and to bolster the regime. "Some people complain about the hard life," he said. "But they don't complain in front of me."Reuse content