BAGHDAD -- The Iraqi woman put her head in her hands and wailed.
"Oh, how I hate that man," she said, speaking of her country's president. "Someday, the people will take hold of him and kill him."
But not soon. Her fear of being named reflects as much.
Saddam Hussein rules over a cowed and sullen nation, too afraid to challenge him, too angry to forgive him, too poor to worry about anything but their next meal.
As his people are stripped of all but the bitterness of poverty, they watch new mansions rise, built for Mr. Hussein and his family. As they eat another meal of soup and tomatoes, they can ponder his fugitive habit of having seven dinners prepared for him each day in different places.
As they prowl in growing desperation for a simple aspirin for their child's fever, they can hear Mr. Hussein's proud exhortations about how the nation has stood up to America.
And if, after a day's work that earned them less than three pieces of bread, they still have energy for anger, they can choose who hurts them more: their own leader or the United States.
Four years after Mr. Hussein bullied his way into Kuwait, setting off the Persian Gulf war, the United States is keeping relentless pressure on this nation of 20 million through a strangling United Nations embargo.
There is no doubt it is working -- against the Iraqi people. Figures accepted by U.N. health officials suggest that there have been at least a quarter-million more deaths in the past three years than would have been expected without the embargo.
There have been a four-fold increase in the death rate, a shocking rise in infant mortality, chronic malnutrition and endemic disease. From hospital beds around the country comes the hollow look of hunger.
It also haunts street corners clogged by cars running on the only cheap commodity in the country -- gasoline. Thin boys in ragged clothes thrust a weary hand through open windows, or listlessly dab the windshield with a dirty cloth.
"They don't want money," said a Baghdad resident. "They want food."
"The overall priority of the Iraqi people is to survive," said a diplomat stationed here. "Not for 10 years [or] for 10 months. But for tomorrow."
For the United States, Mr. Hussein remains the embodiment of the menacing dictator. When he sends two divisions of his army toward Kuwait, as he did 10 days ago, the United States says he is warmongering.
When he withdraws and agrees to recognize the borders of Kuwait, as he did last week, U.S. officials suggest that he is lying.
When he grudgingly submits to the cease-fire terms for U.N. weapons monitoring, the United States says that more must be done before the embargo is lifted.
And every day Iraqis ask the same question:
"Why?" asked a taxi driver, truly pleading for an answer. "Why if America does not like Saddam Hussein do they hurt the Iraqi people? We will starve for 10 years, and he will never miss a meal."
'Pluck him out'
Most here believe America cannot see the distinctions between Mr. Hussein and his people.
"Why should 1 million starve for that one man? If the Americans would come down and pluck him out, everyone would cheer," grumbled a middle-class woman in a shopping district.
For most Iraqis, the American-led embargo has wrenched their daily economy. While Iraq has been barred from selling its only substantial resource -- oil -- the government has continued printing money, making it increasingly worthless.
Inflation of 1,000 percent has driven prices to extraordinary levels, while salaries have hardly doubled. A government clerk makes 3,000 Iraqi dinars a month, but that will buy only three chickens. Or one carton of cigarettes. Or one shoe.
The government provides a ration of staples -- rice, flour, oil, wheat -- designed to supply 70 percent of a person's obvious caloric needs. As of Oct. 1, the ration was cut by more than one-third.
Maged Abed Kadem, 35, tries to support four children on the day labor he can find at construction sites. His job at a bakery ended when the factory closed, unable to get enough sugar and oil.
His family is crowded into a narrow ground-floor room, barely the size of a hallway. The last time his family ate chicken was two years ago. Mostly they eat rice and eggplants and bread that turns black on an oven because of poor flour.
"Before the embargo, we had everything in the markets, and it was cheap," he said. "Now I can give my children nothing."
Struggle to survive
Baghdad has slipped into a siege of urban survival. Its residents have sold their gold bracelets, collected during prosperous years. Gone also are other luxuries: the air conditioner, furniture, carpets, the clothes.
"If you take into consideration their salaries and the prices, they should have died way back," said one diplomat.
"Anybody who has a private car works after-hours as a taxi driver," explained one Iraqi. "Others buy and sell things."
Iraqis abroad -- there are about 1.5 million of them -- send money back to relatives through couriers. A U.S. $100 bill will feed a family well for a month.
Government clerks, among the poorest paid, take advantage of whatever authority they have.
"You can't fulfill any transactions with the government without paying bribes," said one man. "They openly bargain with you."
There are extra privileges for members of Mr. Hussein's ruling Ba'ath Party, for the military and for his omnipresent security services. There even is a special I.D. card: "Friends of Saddam."
Anger at America
Poorer Iraqis resent these privileges. But they resent more the country they see pushing hardest to keep the embargo.
"The people are very, very angry at America," said one man who would give his name only as Omar. "When my baby is hungry, I don't question right or wrong. I just know I can't get food because of your sanctions."
Before the gulf war, Iraq relied on imports for 70 percent of its food and most of its medicine. Now both are in short supply.
Last week, hospitals here ran out of the chemical needed for anesthesia in surgery, U.N. officials said. Basic medicines are missing. Intravenous needles are in short supply. Lack of supplies has cut the number of surgeries performed by two-thirds.
"People are dying," said Dr. Bassam Qasem, an official of the World Health Organization. The year before the gulf war, about 9,000 children under age 5 died. Last year, nearly 50,000 died, according to Iraqi government statistics.
Relief agencies help. But all the U.N. programs meet less than 10 percent of the country's needs, Dr. Qasem said.
Malaria, meningitis, measles and typhoid fever have soared in parts of Iraq. U.N. officials say the water purification systems creak toward disaster from lack of spare parts.
"If a city the size of Baghdad does not provide pure water for 5 million people, you could have major, major problems," said Thomas Ekvall, head of United Nations Children's Emergency Fund in Baghdad. "All the raw sewage is pumped right into the river."
As desperation increases, Baghdad becomes an ever-fearful place. Thievery is rampant. Car tires, too expensive for most Iraqis to buy, disappear in midday from autos parked in front of homes.
Highwaymen plague some roads outside Baghdad. Foreign journalists on a government bus in southern Iraq last week were stopped at gunpoint, stripped and robbed.
They were told they were lucky they were not killed.
The government has said it will dish out Islamic justice to combat crime. Baghdad residents swear they saw a news clip proving it: a thief whose hand was amputated under Islamic law.
The regime took a similar tack with army deserters. Disgusted at the miserable pay, thousands of draftees -- some say up to half the army -- had simply walked off.
The government recently announced that it would cut off the ears of deserters and claimed to have done so to several score of them.
"It was very effective. Most of the deserters came back," said a diplomat.
But if the people are suffering, the regime shows no sympathy pains. Private building permits are frozen -- the materials cost too much anyhow -- but Mr. Hussein still is in a post-war building spree.
There is the new "Saddam Tower" -- a 200-meter white column with a glass-enclosed restaurant near the top -- and the "Baghdad Watch," a giant timepiece visible from afar.
He is going ahead with plans to build what he says will be the largest mosque in the Arab world. And Baghdad residents can list a half-dozen or more new palaces being built for Mr. Hussein, his family and regime leaders.
'He is afraid of us'
Far from those neighborhoods is Saddam City, a district built on the outskirts of Baghdad to accommodate the influx of poor, mostly Shiite Muslim Iraqis migrating from the countryside.
It is a place where dignity is gone: children kick a worn soccer ball through puddles of raw sewage, garbage fills the streets, and smoldering refuse fires paint the whole scene in a haze.
As the economy has squeezed the poor who live in these warrens, Mr. Hussein has added dozens of checkpoints and beefed up the army in Saddam City, according to residents.
"Of course he is afraid of us. He is afraid of everyone now," said Khalid, who lives in Saddam City. His family of eight lives among chickens, ducks and rabbits in their home, a hedge against future starvation.
"You hear him cursed a lot more now," agreed a Baghdad clerk. "Everybody hates him. Now in the market, you hear people say these things. A year ago they would have been taken away by the police: Now, there are too many for them to catch."
"One of these days, there will be a small demonstration on the street," predicted a woman. "The police will come and shoot demonstrators. And slowly the Iraqi people will start to move against the government."
That is an outcome for which the United States has longed: the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
"There is a lot of wishful thinking going on in the U.S. that the sanctions will lead to the end of Saddam Hussein," said a diplomat in Baghdad. "Not in the near future. He has enough dates to eat -- and enough weapons -- to last a dozen years."