BAGHDAD -- This is the arithmetic of postwar Iraq: On her monthly salary as a teacher, Sadia Sa'ad can buy three scrawny chickens. Or two boxes of tea. Or maybe eight small fish.
She cannot do that and buy milk, or medicine, or fruits for her eight children. Seven-year-old Mohammed has not had new shoes in two years.
"What have these children done to deserve such a difficult life?" she asks plaintively.
Iraq, under the squeeze of an embargo clamped on after the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, is now a country whose people are watching themselves become poor. Its property wounds from the Persian Gulf war are largely mended, and its leader blusters on. But the majority of this once-middle-class country now exists below the world standards for destitution.
Prices for the most basic items have soared out of reach of most people. They eat half what they did three years ago. Health conditions have deteriorated, epidemics threaten, crime has increased, education has faltered.
"There is no doubt the general population is suffering," said Mohammed Zejjari, a Moroccan who heads humanitarian programs for the United Nations in Baghdad.
Most of these problems could be cured if Iraq resumed selling oil, its chief revenue source. But such sales are barred under the embargo. Without real revenue, the government prints money that has become increasingly worthless. Prices -- but not salaries -- have become hyper-inflated, rising 5,000 percent since before the war.
Iraq abruptly shut its border early this month, imposed a stiff tax on Iraqis leaving the country, and invalidated all 25-dinar bank notes more than three years old to try to stop a currency drain. The move made worthless millions of old dinars held by Jordanians and by Kurds in the north, and traders bringing in food and supplies now are even more wary of dealing with Iraq.
The government provides a ration, mostly rice and wheat, for about two-thirds of a family's needs. Soaring prices have put the remainder practically out of reach.
The United Nations has refused to relax the embargo because Iraq has not complied with all U.N. resolutions. And Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has refused to accept a provision that would let him sell some oil to buy food under strict U.N. controls while giving Kuwait part of the revenue.
"The West wants to strangle Iraq in order to change the leadership. They want a puppet regime," said Hamid Yusef Hamadi, Iraq's information minister.
If the point of the economic embargo is to topple Mr. Hussein, it has failed. By all accounts, he is more strongly in control than at the end of the gulf war.
In private conversations, many Iraqis say they despise their leader. But they resent the United States even more and applaud Mr. Hussein for "standing up to the Americans."
"The longer the sanctions go on, the more it will strengthen Saddam with his people," said a diplomat in the region. "They see the sanctions as being the fault of America and the U.N., not Saddam Hussein."
U.S. air raids in January, launched by President George Bush in his last days in office, and the failure of the new Clinton administration to improve relations have only deepened Iraqis' belief that there is a conspiracy against them.
"After the war there was no hatred whatsoever to the West. The people understood their government had made a mistake and the West taught it a lesson," said another diplomat. "But people don't understand why America is still bombing them. It has pushed people back to Saddam."
President Clinton has turned down the burner. Washington is being low-key about evidence of an Iraqi plot to kill Mr. Bush on a visit to Kuwait last month. It also is saying little about the arrest and eight-year sentence given American oil worker Kenneth Beaty for straying over the Kuwait border last month.
But as long as the embargo remains, the Iraqi people believe they are being personally punished by the West.
"What can I do?" asked a cleaning woman in an office, tears welling in her eyes. She now works three jobs to try to make ends meet, but "if I buy one kilogram [2.2 pounds] of meat, one kilogram of chicken and one kilogram of rice, my month's salary is gone."
Aid organizations and other countries remain uncomfortable about continuing the strict embargo. "If you use only the stick and not the carrot, it is counterproductive," said a European diplomat.
The embargo exempts food and medicine. But without permission to sell oil, Iraq argues it cannot pay for imports.
And when it has tried to bring in medicine, Iraqi officials claim they have been stopped by bureaucratic objections from the West in the United Nations.
"The policy of the U.S. is to kill Iraqis in a mass way, and kill our children," asserts the minister of trade, Mohammed Saleh al-Rawi.
They offer such children as Zena as proof. Zena is a miniature of what she should be: the tiniest of hands, small infant feet, legs too fragile to walk on. At 18 months, she should weigh about 25 pounds. Malnourished, she weighs less than 9 pounds.
"She will either die when she goes back outside, or she will be crippled in some way for life," said Dr. Hassan Al-Annii, director of the Alwya Children's Hospital, where she lies on a bed with her mother. His blunt prognosis was in English; her mother looked on with hopeful incomprehension.
Zena's mother, Ahram, 22, has three other children. Her husband is a driver, she said, and they can afford to give the baby only about half the milk she requires.
"The next generation will be affected. For 20 years, our children's will be less than now," said Dr. Annii. "This is a crime for the children."
Even privately, few Iraqis acknowledge that their country bears any responsibility for the current situation. They vehemently blame the West.
Iraq is becoming a nation of two classes. At night, the restaurants along the Tigris River are filled with men who huddle over tables full of empty bottles of beer. Each beer is 20 dinars -- two days' wages for a government clerk. Stores have goods on their shelves; there are fancy cars in the street.
But these are for the privileged class, those Iraqis increasingly removed from the means of everyday people.
"We are very lucky," said a well-dressed woman in the privacy of her modern office. She has access to U.S. dollars, and at the inflated black-market exchange rates, the dollars buy wads of Iraqi dinars. She can afford to buy meat and fruits and has built a second house.
But at the weekly auction market, Madihan Rasheed Abdel Wahed, 63, brings in the family sewing machine to get money to eat. She wears the black shroud of a religious Muslim, "but even this black cloth is too expensive now," she says, rubbing the material between her fingers.
"I used this sewing machine to make my family's clothes," she said. "But we would rather eat. Why does America do this to us?"
Pepsi and Coke, practically staples in the Middle East, have virtually disappeared from Baghdad. Women who used to sell a Kool-Aid mixture from tubs on the street now sell water; sugar is too expensive. Vendors who grilled ground meat on a stick now sell beans instead. Beggars, rare in Baghdad before the war, are becoming common.
The grind of daily life has produced a gloomy depression.
"We are stuck here. Our money is worth nothing, so we cannot afford to leave," said a morose physician. "It has gone beyond despair. It has reached the point of hopelessness. Many people are trying to find ways to send their children away, just to save them."
Another woman had turned suicidal. "Sometimes I say, let me go out in the street and shout about this situation. Let them take me away," she said. "If a car came and hit me today, I would not care."
"We do nothing at night. We come home and drink arak," said a young engineer in his house, sipping a glass of the liquor made of dates, still produced cheaply by the government.
Hard climb to recovery
The first assessments from Baghdad after the gulf war were grim. Relief groups found a country stunned and immobilized. They predicted widespread starvation, waves of epidemics, the collapse of the economy and infrastructure. Baghdad had been bombed "back into the pre-industrial age," said one report.
Mostly, they were wrong. The government's resourcefulness in repair and rebuilding surprised those familiar with the usually moribund bureaucracy. Engineers were given ambitious deadlines and good rewards for meeting them.
Parts that could not be imported were made or cannibalized from other machines. Farmers were ordered to enlarge their fields, and office workers sent to gather the harvest.
There has been a significant rise in disease and malnutrition, but "we didn't have as high mortality rates as predicted," said Dr. Abdalla Suliman, the Sudanese head of the U.N. World Health Organization in Baghdad.
Much of the survival was due to Iraqis pulling in their belts -- hard. They eat only half as much. While their prewar diet gave them 3,300 calories a day, now they get only about 1,500 calories a day, said Mohammed Salaheed, a Pakistani who directs operations for the United Nations' World Food Program.
"They're very hard-pushed," he said. "You see even poor families trying to sell their houses to get money for food."
Saddam Hussein seems imperiously oblivious to the suffering of his people. For his 56th birthday last month, Iraqis watched lavish celebrations on television. While most households lacked sugar, he cut into a huge birthday cake, and he rode away in an ornate golden chariot.
"He thinks he's an emperor," grumbled one who saw it.
But there is no public criticism.
"We have a saying in Arabic: Who dares tell the lion his breath smells?" said a professional.
Mr. Hussein remains firmly entrenched through fear: fear of him, and of what would be without him.
His promises of democracy after the war were as empty as the people expected them to be. His huge force of secret police has tightened its grip. The people have reverted to mum silence. His huge portraits grin throughout the city.
"Anyone who speaks out here has their tongue cut out," said a college student.
But Mr. Hussein takes no chances. He almost never appears in public. The soldiers in his birthday parade were strip-searched and their guns emptied of ammunition. According to one knowledgeable source, he has lunch prepared at seven locations each day, and no one knows which place he will eat.
But even many who despise him are unable to answer the riddle of who would come next.
"You couldn't put a democrat in, because he would never be able to run this country. And if you put a strongman in, he will be another Saddam Hussein in a few years," said one observer.
The regime's bloody repression of Shiites in the south and Kurds in the north could prompt violent revenge-taking if Mr. Hussein were deposed.
"I am really worried there could be a Bosnia here," said a Christian in Baghdad, one of the minorities that has found relative safety in Iraq's secular rule.
Mr. Hussein seems to be hedging his bets. As Muslim fundamentalism grows in the Arab world, he has found Allah. He has decreed that alcohol cannot be sold on Friday (the Muslim holy day) and bars cannot be owned by Muslims. He has told his staunchly secular Ba'ath Party that it must become "the party of God."
"Before, at ceremonies, we would just have a minute of silence. Now they are reading Islamic prayers. And they are getting longer and longer," said one participant.
Hopes clash with reality
The pros and cons of this regime clash in a bare concrete home in Saddam City, a warren of poor homes on the outskirts of Baghdad. Here a family of nine shares small quarters with goats, chickens, pigeons, ducks and cages of songbirds, all raised for food or money.
One window of the small home opens through bars to an alleyway, where the family collects a few dinars each day selling candy to urchin children and peddling cigarettes -- one at a time -- to the working men who stroll past.
"We used to eat meat four or five times a month," said Mohammed, who is 26. "Now I don't even know the price of it. We never eat it."
And yet, five of the seven offspring of the family attend college, compliments of the government, even though they are Shiites. Two will be doctors, two will be professors, and one a scientist.
"We are lucky in that regard," said Ali, 24. "We can go to college."
But the outlook for jobs is bleak, the economy is sour, and none of the young men has the money to get married, he said.
"We cannot say anything," he concluded. "But the future is black."