Proud Iraqis draw veil over sanctions misery: In Baghdad, Sarah Helm finds people battling silently against suffering caused by the UN embargo

SALEH was kneeling in a pile of rotting garbage when we stopped to talk to him in the Baghdad slum of Sheikh Omar. He was, perhaps, six or seven. He didn't know his exact age.

''What are you looking for?' we asked. Twisting his bony, shirtless frame, he stared nervously towards us, clutching his booty of stinking tomatoes, before scampering up an alley to his waiting mother. Behind, two little girls, covered with flies, continued filling plastic bags from the same infested pile.

'It's for the dogs,' said a passer-by, who was clearly shamed by Western observers peering at Iraq's hungry children - pawns in a game they know nothing of, called 'sanctions'.

President Saddam Hussein has invited the world's press to see the plight of his people, creating an audience while he plays his latest card. The Iraqi people, however, are uncertain about the attention they are receiving. Determined to keep their dignity amid humiliation, they often seek to deny that a tragedy is unfolding around them.

In slum areas a recent survey by the UN Children's Fund found that nearly 10 per cent of children are now suffering from malnutrition. Since a cut in rations two weeks ago, cases of marasmus and kwashiorkor - diseases caused by severe malnutrition - have escalated. The local hospital does not have even basic antibiotics. Women in corridors double up in agony from urinary tract infections that are spreading rapidly due to bad water.

Those who can, have channelled energies into countering sanctions, by setting up an alternative economy. The motor stores of Sheikh Omar are stacked with smuggled spare parts, while old cars are pieced together with great ingenuity.

Others refuse to see their dilemma. 'We have no problems. Everything is good here. I don't hear the news. I know nothing of sanctions, I just go home after work,' said Shakr Mahmoud, 54, a spare parts dealer.

The siege mentality is difficult to escape. This conflict appears to pit the Iraqi people and their President against the entire world.

President Saddam's easy explanations have been readily grasped by many people. 'America wants to smash Iraq because Iraq is strong. The world didn't want Iraq to advance because they are frightened of us. We are not like other Arab countries. We have principles and a strong leader,' said Nahath Hashim, speaking in the Salam (Peace) coffee shop.

But the words of ordinary Iraqi people are riddled with contradictions. They know there is no real dignity in their dire situation.

Responses are usually mouthed out of an abject feeling of fear of the authorities. There are always people listening. Yes, they say, it was right to go to war over Kuwait. And yes, many young men declare: 'I would stand and fight Clinton with my own two hands.' But, nobody here wants another war, they add in the same breath.

'We are still strong. But Iraq would lose if we invaded Kuwait now. Our President doesn't want another war,' one man said. Beneath the tutored phrases, it is not hard to discern the doubts that plague the thoughts of many people. Ordinary Iraqis know that the world has moved on without them since the Gulf war. They have heard of the new peace agreement in the Middle East and they feel isolated and blacked out from the world's view.

Furthermore, they see no prospect of change. 'We are alone. Alone in the world and cut off. How would you feel if everyone was against you? But what can we do? What would you do,' asked a young doctor, as patients thrust their useless prescripton papers in his face.

Lowering his head in a crowded store, one young man suddenly uttered the word 'mistake', and those around fell silent. 'Perhaps the invasion was a mistake,' he said. 'Kuwait is ours. We know that from the history books, but look at all the problems we have now.' Another storeholder said; 'Mistake? Leave this question.' But the distress in his voice was easy to detect.

Occasionally, a brave voice will articulate what is written in the eyes of many. 'Of course, you can imagine what these people really think. But they will not say it to you,' a young Iraqi student said. 'They know the truth, but they are afraid, and they don't want to be embarrassed. You must respect their dignity.'

(Photograph omitted)

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