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Iraq's Rebuilding Success Fosters Pride

But people `exhausted' by standoff with West

IRAQ'S economy may be sputtering, but heavy damage from the bombing of Baghdad during the 1991 Gulf war is disappearing.

"Who lost the war anyway?" wonders aloud Jacque Beradeaux, a French engineer. Visiting Baghdad to evaluate damage to telephone and communications services, he admits to being "very impressed" by the enormous reconstruction efforts in Baghdad.

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Government warehouses, ministries, congress-halls, and bridges have been repaired with greater zeal than their bombed-out predecessors were built.

"I must say that this whole reconstruction business is astounding," says Albert Hutten, a Dutch sanitation expert who has been in Iraq several times since the war.

As a recent example, the Rashid Hotel, heavily damaged during a United States cruise missile attack Jan. 17, has been repaired with such speed and determination that many of the 1,000-plus guests who left the hotel after the bombing have returned.

Iraq's massive infrastructure repair has come despite two-and-a-half years of United Nations-imposed economic sanctions, including the freezing of $4 billion in Iraqi assets abroad; restrictions on oil sales that the Iraqi government has largely refused to pursue; and international scrutiny of its every move, including the dismantling of chemical and nuclear programs.

Yet despite Iraqis' evident pride in the rebuilding effort in Baghdad, it is clear, too, that the country is weary of the continuing standoff with the West.

"We are exhausted, our bodies are exhausted, our minds are exhausted, our currency is worthless. For the love of God let's end this now," says Abu Khaled, curator at the popular Saddam Arts Center, explaining why he thinks peace is necessary.

That Iraq is "exhausted," as the gray-haired Abu Khaled says is evident. There seems a palpable desire among Iraqis, and even government officials, to come to terms with the West.

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"The Iraqi people hope that Bill Clinton will be a better president than George Bush and will make peace with Iraq, not war," says University of Baghdad student Salwa Ahmed.

From the Iraqi point of view, any possibility of peace prior to Mr. Clinton's inauguration was impossible because of "George Bush's personal rage against Iraq," according to Minister of Trade Mohammed Mehdi Saleh.

He says the rebuilding has restored national pride, but others say it has also been divisive. Refurbishing Baghdad has clearly been the top priority. Nearly all bridges have been rebuilt in Baghdad, where Saddam and his Baathist party have their base, while in the southern city of Basra, only about half are fixed. Equality an issue

The issue of fairness in providing equal facilities and food rations in the north, south, and center of the country has become a sensitive matter. Many Iraqis resent suggestions that the "Shiite south" and "Kurdish north" have been neglected in favor of Baghdad and central Iraq.

Mr. Saleh says it is an outside attempt "to divide the country" and create a rift between the government and people. Measures such as the computerized food-rationing system introduced after sanctions hit in August 1990 are equalizing factors, he says.

Still, for most Iraqis, the country's 3,000 percent inflation rate means that the rationing system meets only about 60 percent of their needs. The average Iraqi's monthly income of 200 dinars (about $7) is down significantly from a pre-war level of $320.

One result is that many Iraqis now live in poverty. Middle and upper-middle class women have taken to selling their English silver tea sets to make ends meet. Lower-class women beg or steal to feed their children. War profiteers, who live in constant fear of a government crackdown (40 were recently hanged for undermining the economy), find ways to hoard banned luxury items and resell them at exorbitant prices.

After the war, the government attempted initially to distribute goods and services through the free market. But Baghdad officials now say merchants did not respect the special circumstances Iraq faces and became "too eager" to waste valuable foreign currency on French perfumes, Italian shoes, and Pepsi Cola.

The government limited trade in such items last month, banning 80 items it considered superfluous. The move has turned Baghdad's posh shopping districts into street after street of closed shops.

Now the government has called on Iraq's industrialists to build an entirely self-sufficient country. Charged with this mandate, many government buildings in the capital have been rebuilt with materials Iraq had in stock before sanctions began. But more often, reconstruction in outlying areas seems a patchwork of reclaimed materials, self-made materials, and of course, ubiquitous Iraqi cement. Societal shifts

Beneath the pride in the reconstruction effort lie deep concerns of many Iraqis about other effects of the war on their society, including some difficult for many to even acknowledge.

"I don't care about the buildings and the bridges, this war has destroyed our families," says Ahmad Oweis, a retired major from the Iraqi Army. After 30 years of service in the Army, Mr. Oweis feels all wars have brought nothing but social catastrophe.

"A professor of classical literature ... makes $15 a month while a swindler makes thousands. This is a disaster," Major Oweis says. "Young women brought up to be ladies are willing to do almost anything to make some money."

At the core of such social upheaval is the economic crisis created by UN resolutions 706 and 712, which stipulate that Iraq may sell $1.6 billion of oil and use one-third of the proceeds for its own needs. Saddam has declined to do so in protest of UN restrictions on how proceeds are spent.

But though Iraq still lugs post Iran-Iraq war debts of about $80 billion, reconstruction continues. A worker rebuilding a warehouse in Nasiriya, about 160 miles southeast of Baghdad points to a sheet metal patchwork from which the ceiling has been made.

His country, he says proudly, is building up a new infrastructure "made of the scraps."

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