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U.N. Sanctions Taking Their Toll on Iraqi Resources, Creativity

By Nora Boustany
The Washington Post

BAGHDAD, Iraq

It is not exactly the reinvention of the wheel, but in Saddam City -- the drab concentration of slums and repair shops here where anything is possible -- badly scarred car tires are mended with shoe soles.

This is just one of the many tricks desperate Iraqi car "fixers" have resorted to in recent months. Ruined generators are rewired, somewhat crudely, so that they work-at least for a while. Bicycle parts tossed as scrap metal always come in handy for a quick mend, as do a bagful of hubcaps and other odds and ends. All these objects -- mostly stolen -- can be found spread out along the pavement at Saddam City's bazaar of used parts, the Souk Mreidi.

Such creative recycling is commonplace for hard-pressed Iraqis trying to get around the trade sanctions -- including a ban on the sale of oil -- imposed on their country by the United Nations in August 1990, after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Making do has become a way of life since then for many Iraqis, who have entered a new world of wiped-out savings, scarcities and waiting in line. Among the prohibitions is the importation of tires, a pair of which costs at least 4,000 Iraqi dinars, equal to 10 months of a senior ministry official's income. Before the invasion of Kuwait, a set of four tires cost 50 dinars.

"First we used to dump used tires, now we fix them 10 times. We are Iraqis and we do the impossible," boasted car mechanic Ali Qazem, 30, showing off a large wheel sporting half a worn shoe sole stitched on unevenly with cotton string.

Hassan Hamid Jassem, 36, who owns a repair shop in Baghdad, was not as enthusiastic.

"I laugh at myself at times -- my work load has increased but not my income. I used to fix 10 tires a day. Now I have a daily 50 to 60 to repair at 2 or 3 dinars a tire, but my heart goes out to my fellow Iraqis. I cannot send customers away. Where can they go?" said Jassem. "They use those things for two or three days, then they come back with flat tires."

Beatrice Ohanessian, the lead pianist for the Baghdad Symphony Orchestra, is not amused by the situation.

"I have five patched-up tires -- one has been fixed five times," said Ohanessian, who graduated from the Juilliard School of Music in New York. "The other day I had a puncture. There I was a woman at 9 o'clock at night with a puncture on the freeway. I keep mending the torn ones and drive slowly to work. ... It is a matter of life and death."

"If you want to fix your car you better go and wait and watch every movement the mechanic is making," Ohanessian said. "You are afraid they will take a screw or some part you will not be able to replace even with a month's salary. You are always protecting your things yourself."

The musician has had to cut back on practicing from five hours to two hours each day to keep up with the demands of daily life under the sanctions, including queuing for rationed foods. "You have to go fight for your petrol, cooking gas, take your flour to the baker. ... Yesterday my sister waited for six hours for milk, cheese and yogurt," Ohanessian said.

Ohanessian's income from the orchestra, a small pension and teaching totals a mere 365 dinars a month. One liter of milk costs 70 dinars, a kilogram of meat 85 dinars and a carton of eggs 80 dinars.

With the sharp devaluation of the Iraqi currency, still officially yet unrealistically pegged at $3 to the dinar, even the wealthiest Iraqis have seen their savings wiped out. One man who declined to be named said the savings he thought were worth $300,000 are now worth $4,000.

"We have lost our past, our present and much of our future," an Iraqi physician complained. He said one of his colleagues performed three operations in one day and made less than $50.

But the scarcity of goods is not only due to the U.N. sanctions. To the frustration of shopkeepers as well as consumers, the Iraqi government has banned a long list of imported goods, including sweets, freeze-dried coffee and foreign cigarettes. According to Trade Minister Mohammed Mehdi Saleh, the action was taken to reduce social discrepancies.

"There are two resolutions for Iraqis-that imposed by the United Nations and the one imposed by the Trade Ministry," joked one Information Ministry official who said he missed smoking his favorite brand of English cigarettes.

The Iraqi government has tried unsuccessfully to tie its blocked oil sales to a popular cause. Earlier this month, Baghdad offered to donate $50 million to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency to help Palestinian refugees if it could sell some of its oil under U.N. supervision, but the deal was rejected. Saleh said Iraq would like to see some of its frozen assets released so it can buy medicines, sugar, rice and other items.