2/7/98 -- 1:41 PM

Iraqi middle-class dreams overwhelmed by tensions, depression

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - Behind the bravado and anti-American chants at almost daily government-orchestrated demonstrations, Iraq's conservative Muslim society is tearing at the seams under the strain of seven years of U.N. sanctions.

Mental illness, divorce and crime are increasing. Fewer couples are marrying, leading to a weakening of sexual taboos. And shrinking salaries have dealt a blow to middle-class life, as well as to the pride and dignity that underpin it. Fully half of Iraqis suffer from depression, estimates Waheib Kubbasi of Baghdad University's psychology department.

In the past, Kubbasi said, Iraqi middle-class life rested on three pillars: a university degree, a marriage to someone of good family and a promising post in the bureaucracy.

All the pillars have fallen since 1990, when U.N. sanctions imposed after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait banned most oil exports and devastated the country's economy.

Education no longer guarantees a good salary and, with the plunge of Iraq's dinar reducing a government worker's monthly pay to about $3 a month, no one even wants a job in the bureaucracy.

``A taxi driver or bricklayer earns more than a professor gets, or a doctor,'' sociologist Ihsan al-Hassan said.

Al-Hassan said part of the problem was that traditional beliefs about dignity and status - or ``family name'' - mean many middle-class Iraqis won't take a humble job for fear of being looked down on.

The uneducated working man has no such fears and will take any job he can get. ``He does not care about his name because he has no name,'' said al-Hassan.

In Iraq's trying circumstances, many cannot afford to marry. Inflation has driven up the dowry traditionally paid by the groom to the wife's family to $325, a huge sum for most Iraqis.

Baydaa Ihsan Fathi of the Iraqi Women's Federation speaks of the despair of Iraqi women - brought up believing they would be wives and mothers - who still are single in their late 20s or even 30s. Not so long ago, Iraqi women married at 15, 16 or 17.

``They have to wait for the man to ask, and the man can't afford it,'' she said. ``I'm too embarrassed to talk about the kind of behavior that comes with this delay,'' she added, her light hair peeking out from under a black scarf.

Al-Hassan and Kubbasi, the psychologist, both said delayed marriages were leading to more sex outside marriage - a taboo in Islam as in many other religions - and, even worse, an increase in prostitution.

Neither man could offer statistics on the growth of social problems resulting from U.N. sanctions - social surveys have broken down, too - but many Iraqis speak of fewer couples marrying and a frightening increase in crime.

Al-Hassan said the new belief that status comes with money is leading to theft and embezzlement. But he insisted that the number of Iraqis who deviate from society's norms remain ``a minority, not more than 10 percent.''

Kubbasi said many more Iraqis are suffering psychological problems because of the sanctions: depression, hysteria, feelings of inadequacy and the inability to concentrate.

``We expect all mental problems to increase,'' Kubbasi said.

Both he and al-Hassan say difficulties arise when old expectations - woman as wife and mother, man as provider and family head - clash with new realities.

Natural strains in families are worsened by what is unaccustomed poverty for many Iraqis, he said. A wife's request for cosmetics or a child's plea for a new toy sets off tensions and arguments.

``The husband is unable to provide,'' Kubbasi said. ``He feels inadequate, unable to support his family.''

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