Saddam executes 'profiteer' traders

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The Independent Online
THE confirmation by Saddam Hussein that merchants have been executed for profiteering and hoarding basic commodities is the first official acknowledgement of the seriousness of the Iraqi measures to deal with the dire economic strains.

Reports over the past couple of weeks have said that 42 merchants had been executed. They said that since 25 July some 600 merchants had been arrested in a crackdown. Most would serve long jail terms.

On Wednesday, the Iraqi leader declared war on what he called profiteers, middle men and bungling officials. He said all government officials who fell down on their jobs would be branded economic saboteurs and dealt with accordingly: 'Stringent measures will be taken against them, similar to strict measures taken against the traitors who were involved in profiteering and monopoly.'

President Saddam has a difficult balancing act. He needs traders to get round the United Nations sanctions that have been squeezing the country. Yet he also needs a scapegoat other than himself for pursuing policies which incurred the UN sanctions, in order to placate an increasingly distressed and suffering population.

In the event, he has sacrificed the merchants in favour of equality of misery for the sake of a measure of social peace. And once again, he has shown the ruthless nature of a regime which will stop at nothing to ensure its survival.

On Wednesday, a Plan of Action was announced to deal with some of the shortages created by the UN sanctions, now in their third year.

Western diplomats have sought some comfort from the seeming effectiveness of the sanctions, which they say seem to be biting. Reuter reports from Baghdad that flour has doubled in price in the past two weeks as the route through Turkey has been blocked by squabbling Kurdish groups. And sugar, rice and staples imported through Jordan have also been in short supply.

Despite these strains, Saddam Hussein's position looks stronger than at any time in the past two years. Over this period, he has survived concerted attack from the US-led coalition and suppressed uprisings in both the Shia south and the Kurdish north of the country. His armies of secret police and security apparatus are well able to cope with outbreaks of popular discontent over rising prices.

The danger will be if the situation deteriorates so far that the Iraqi leader will be tempted to pursue some venture outside his borders to divert attention from the home front.