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Living Conditions Improving for Iraqis - 2003-07-14


For two decades, Iraq struggled in poverty brought on by an eight-year war with neighboring Iran and 12 years of U.N. sanctions. The sanctions in particular greatly affected the country's middle class and the poor but did little to undermine the wealth and power of Iraq's deposed leader, Saddam Hussein. Now, with the sanctions lifted, many Iraqis have access to goods that they could not get for years.

Impatient drivers honk their horns as traffic slows down to a crawl near the Karada district in Baghdad.

Hundreds of cars filled with shoppers fight for space with numerous pick-up trucks, trying to deliver their goods to stores that line both sides of Karada Street for more than a kilometer.

Most of the stores here sell electronic household items. There are so many items for sale now, stores have run out of space to display them inside.

Walking along Karada Street means having to weave through a maze of boxes stacked up on sidewalks, containing new television sets, video-cassette recorders, refrigerators, washing machines and air conditioners.

These products were all very hard to find during much of Saddam Hussein's rule. Iraq's middle class was especially hurt by international sanctions that were imposed after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and continued until U.S. and British forces toppled Saddam in early April.

Iraqis say the sanctions, which required United Nations approval for most Iraqi imports, created boundless opportunities for black-market smuggling that were quickly monopolized by people with connections to Saddam and his family. They say black marketers drove the price of many goods beyond the reach of most middle class families.

But since April, those prices have come down dramatically. Air conditioners that once cost $1,500 are now $400-500. Refrigerators that cost $2,500 are now being sold for $700. One store manager, Majid Abdul Amir, says business at his electronics shop has increased by more than 50 percent in the past two months.

Mr. Amir said there have always been rich people in Baghdad who could afford luxury goods, no matter how expensive they were. But he said it is mostly ordinary Iraqis who are now coming here to buy.

A 55-year-old widow who calls herself Om Ammar is one of those middle class Iraqis who has seen her family climb out of poverty almost overnight.

Ignoring the 53 degree Celsius heat, she moves from store to store, clutching a handbag that contains the Iraqi dinar equivalent of $300. She says she is shopping for a new television set, the first her family has tried to buy in more than 15 years.

"For years, we could afford nothing," Om Ammar said, but now we can buy things on my daughter's salary." She said her daughter is a school teacher who earns about $50 a month.

Forty-three year-old Riad Khokez Yassin said he once worked as an engineer at an electricity plant in Baghdad, but lost his job after looters destroyed the facility. He now works as a truck driver, delivering air conditioners to stores on Karada Street.

But he said he has no complaints. Mr. Yassin said he earns more money now driving trucks than he did as an engineer, and he can afford many more things.

Mr. Yassin said he believes the lives of most Iraqis are already getting better. He said he is glad Saddam, and the sanctions, are gone.

But even those who openly cheer the downfall of Saddam like Mr. Yassin are still reluctant to praise the U.S.-led administration that is now leading Iraq.

Iraqis say they are mainly frustrated by the administration's inability to quickly and fully restore basic services like electricity and water in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country.

The electricity supply in the Karada district is so spotty right now, nearly every store on Karada street has to rely on diesel-powered generators to demonstrate their goods to consumers. Store owners said next to air conditioners, generators are the most popular consumer items.

Om Ammar said she would also like to buy an air conditioner and a generator for her family. But at the moment, she only has enough money for a television set.

She reports she purchased a small one, made in Korea. As she hops into a taxi and disappears into the traffic she shouts, "God willing, we will have electricity tonight!"