BAGHDAD, Iraq -- After four years of economic sanctions, Iraq has become impoverished, with its citizens struggling to survive in a world of roaring inflation, dwindling supplies of goods and salaries that never catch up with prices.
Last summer, there were two antique stalls in the lobby of the smart Al Rashid Hotel in Baghdad where middle-class Iraqis, desperate for cash, deposited their Arab antiques in the hope that they might find a buyer.
Today there are 10.
Amra Mufta, who presides over a stall, explained: "Everyone needs money. Doctors, lawyers, dentists, teachers. They sell anything they don't need."
The government has averted wholesale starvation by providing all Iraqis with a basic monthly food ration at a cost of about $1 billion a year from its hidden reserves and with help from United Nations agencies. Enough medicine and treatment are still available to prevent the epidemics of cholera and other contagious diseases forecast in the days after the end of the Persian Gulf war in 1991.
But the official ration provides only 70 percent of needed calories. Supplementing it from the free market is expensive when a junior doctor earns only 475 dinars a month and a single chicken costs 350 dinars. Food prices have jumped 3,000 percent since 1991.
When the gulf war ended, the United Nations feared that the allies had bombed Iraq back to a "preindustrial age." That was wrong.
President Saddam Hussein began a crash reconstruction program that soon restored the country's damaged infrastructure, using secret cash reserves, huge stocks of spare parts built up before the war and goods looted from Kuwait at the start of the war. Electricity-generating plants were restarted, telephones rang again and damaged bridges and government buildings were repaired.
But today Baghdad's appearance of normality is misleading. Under the impact of uncontrollable inflation, as the government prints worthless dinars without oil revenue to back them, the economy is in a tailspin, and the fabric of society is disintegrating.
In May, the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization said Iraq was experiencing "mass deprivation, chronic hunger, endemic undernutrition for the vast majority of the population, collapse of personal incomes and rapidly increasing numbers of destitute people."
The quality of health care is also deteriorating. "The shortages of medicine get worse daily," said Deputy Health Minister Shawky S. Marcus.
An independent World Health Organization study last month confirmed these figures for the Basra region of southern Iraq, as well as the government's contention that the number of low-weight births had risen from 4.5 percent of all births in 1990 to 19.7 percent last year.