Iraqis settle for devil they know: Charles Richards in Baghdad finds the people frustrated at the West's tactics

AT THE souk of al-Karradah in central Baghdad, near the statue of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, greengrocers and shopkeepers husband one precious commodity: the pieces of chalk with which they can mark the rising prices of their goods, the most accurate measure of the country's galloping inflation.

Of food there is plenty. Ziggurats of shiny blue-black aubergines, piles of oranges and tangerines, stacks of coarse lettuce and radish, baskets of onions and cucumber, and the herbs essential to cooking in Mesopotamia: flat-leaf parsley in profusion, dill and thyme. Shanks of lamb hang in the butchers' shops.

In the general stores, shelves groan under bottles of Black Label whisky, and other bottles whose names and shapes do credit to the counterfeiter's craft.

Shoppers - and men in much of the Arab world pride themselves on their ability to pick out the best fruit - choose carefully. Eggs yesterday cost 72 dinars a tray of 30; at the end of the Gulf war they cost 1.5 dinars - a huge inflation rate. Lamb was up to 85 dinars a kilogram, tomatoes 5 dinars a kilo. There is no meaningful conversion into world prices. A meal in a Baghdad cafe for 25 dinars would cost pounds 50 at the official rate, but only 50p at the free- market rate.

For most Iraqis, however, meat has simply risen beyond their means. A government doctor in Basra, with a salary of 400 dinars a month, cannot afford a tin of baby-milk formula at 180 dinars.

Most civil servants - the majority of Iraqis are employed by the state - earn between 250 and 500 dinars a month.

The causes of the high prices are not only the stranglehold of UN economic sanctions, or the ban on many imported goods. The execution of 42 merchants for hoarding and profiteering last summer shocked the trading community, and had the reverse effect of what was intended: trade was greatly reduced and prices were forced up.

It remains a mystery how ordinary Iraqis make ends meet. Simply, they take from the state and buy in the market. The state ration scheme provides a steady supply of essential commodities: flour, rice, sugar, tea and soap. It is a spartan regime, which is sufficient for at most 14 days a month. Families supplement it with what they can afford in the market.

It would take a lot more, however, to convert the shaky recipe of household accounting into the chemistry of dissent and rebellion. For the Iraqis have tired of confrontation. They have learnt over the years to make an accommodation with the state, and express their grievances privately. 'We are being punished for not getting rid of Saddam Hussein,' said a mechanic, who preferred not to give his name. 'But what can we do?'

The government line is that the people do not wish to get rid of President Saddam. The view of others is that even if they wanted to, they could not. Yet ordinary people are being made to pay the price. The elite wants for nothing. Its members have all the food and drink they desire. 'There is no middle class now,' explained a housewife, 'only the rich and the poor.'

In the villages, farmers have difficulty obtaining seeds and fertilisers. Aid agencies report continuing shortages of medicines.

It was not always thus. After the Gulf war, the Americans enjoyed tremendous popular support. Saddam Hussein was blamed for the policy errors that brought the bombs down upon the Iraqis' heads. But in the past 18 months, that perception has changed.

Those who hoped for a more active American role in helping to engineer the overthrow of the Baghdad regime have been disillusioned by the lack of American resolve.

Many consider that former president George Bush betrayed the Kurds in the north and the Shias in the south by not supporting their uprisings.

At the same time, the sight of the Shia uprising in the spring of 1991, when government officials were butchered by insurgents carrying pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini, terrified the Iraqis.

In recent months, those who more or less openly used to look to the Americans for help have seen them instead inflicting petty humiliations and widespread hardship. Grumbles against the government, the excesses of the hated Mukhabarat security police, and the corruption of high officials are widespread.

But Saddam Hussein has one great ally: the popular fear of instability and chaos. People may hate what he has done to their lives, but they recognise that the bloodletting that would follow his departure would be awful.

And who else but a leader with so sure a vision and so resolute a determination could have rebuilt almost entirely the infrastructure of the state: the bridges across the Euphrates, the power stations, the water-pumping plants, the telecommunications, the motorways? And all without imports.

With the external opposition against Saddam Hussein divided and split, and his control over internal dissent stronger than ever, the chances of his early disappearance are remote. Iraqis have learnt to make their accommodations and survive.

(Photograph omitted)

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