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UN sanctions through an Arab lens

Bracing for an emotional experience, some of the Arab filmgoers went to the theater prepared: They carried tissues. And the screening of a new documentary about the impact of nine years of United Nations sanctions on Iraq did not disappoint them.

The film, "Ta-ka-sim From Baghdad," or "Solos From Baghdad," describes how a nation that sits atop the second-richest oil reserves in the world is wallowing in poverty. Under the grip of sanctions, most of Iraq's 23 million people are reduced to unwilling participants in the unraveling of this once-wealthy society.

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As the film by Lebanese filmmaker Sayed Kaado makes its way across the Middle East, it has brought into focus, and forced filmgoers to confront, difficult issues involving fellow Arabs.

"People become angry, they feel humiliated, they say it is our own [Arab] fault when faced with the truth in such a clear way," says Ida Dabbas, a Jordanian who helped bring the film to Amman.

"This film brings out what was already in their minds," she continues. "There is also a lot of anger toward the US and Britain. Their continued aggression is seen as going beyond the leadership, as a conspiracy to break the Iraqi people, to make the nation kneel."

The UN Security Council first imposed sanctions against Iraq in August 1990, to punish President Saddam Hussein for Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. They were tightened after the Gulf War to prevent Iraq from rebuilding its weapons of mass-destruction programs, which - to the West's surprise - proved to be the most sophisticated in the Middle East except for Israel.

US officials had hoped that the regime would shortly be toppled. But instead, Saddam clung to power, and Western observers say that, far from weakening the regime, sanctions have in fact strengthened it. The ruling elite in Baghdad has not suffered, while the majority of poor Iraqis have experienced extreme deprivation.

Though most Arabs are not apologists for Saddam's authoritarian rule, they take a different view when it comes to what they see as a targeting of Iraqi people and its leader as part of the Arab family.

In February 1998, Arabs across the Mideast took to the streets in protest as Washington threatened to bomb Iraq to force compliance with UN weapons inspectors. "Iraqis have suffered enough," was the common refrain.

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When bombing did occur last December, the buildup was deliberately short to avoid a repeat public protest. The United States, furthermore, emphasized that their actions in Iraq were directed at Saddam - not the people.

But "Ta-ka-sim From Baghdad" refocuses Arabs on the hardships of Iraqis. The film played first in Lebanon and Iraq, and in Jordan the audience grew each night until the third and final showing played to a packed house of 400. Free showings at a local university also brought heavy interest.

Mr. Kaado, the producer, says he has sent copies of the film to UN chief Kofi Annan, European TV stations, and some American universities. But a wide television audience will likely remain elusive - even in the Arab world - because most people "don't want to know about it."

On the first night the film was screened in Amman, an Iraqi woman in the audience drew applause with her comment: "America is our enemy, and it hurts. But the fact that the Arab nation and Arab leaders ignore this hurts more."

Notably, the film does not once mention Saddam. Americans are also hardly mentioned and not directly accused.

Sanctions are portrayed in the film as the sole cause of Iraqi hardship, and the viewer is left to ponder the images of poverty. An author, Abdel Khalek el-Roukabi, has had to sell parts of his library. The works of an Arab poet paid for a daughter's dress, he says, while volumes of Shakespeare, Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy bought other items for the family. The story moved one filmgoer to leave the auditorium in tears.

Several more tearful watchers left when an actress explained why she delayed marriage: "I fear that I'm committing a crime against the child that I bear," she says. "Can we provide him the kind of dignified life we used to live?"

Official Iraqi figures show that 420,000 children under the age of 5 have died since the Gulf War. The UN Children's Fund confirms that child mortality rates tripled in this decade.

To try to alleviate food and medicine shortages, the UN Security Council and Iraq accepted an "oil-for-food" deal in late 1996. Iraq today is selling its oil for food and humanitarian supplies, and malnutrition rates have eased, though mortality rates are still rising.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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