(AFP, DUBAI) - With 10 years already lost under sanctions since the disastrous invasion of Kuwait, Iraq faces several more bleak decades to come with or without President Saddam Hussein.
Potentially among the richest countries of the Middle East, due to its wealth in oil and water and once high education standards, Iraq today ranks among the world's most isolated and backward while having to learn to rely on its own skills.
On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the August 2 invasion, Iraq analysts warn it will be a long and painful road to recovery, even with a lifting of sanctions and a change of regime in Baghdad.
"The outlook for Iraq is pretty awful. It will take virtually all of the 21st century for Iraq to re-emerge as a regional power," said Professor Anoush Ehteshami, director of Middle East studies at Britain's Durham University.
"You can rebuild the infrastructure in 20 years or so, but not the people. To equip them for a modern economy, it will take many more decades, and all the oil income in the world will not help."
Former UN humanitarian programme chiefs insist that the embargo has backfired since Iraq's ouster from Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War, with the Iraqi population of 22 million paying a tragic price.
"The sanctions have helped sustain the staying power of the regime and given it an effective system of control," said Ehteshami. "Everyone in Iraq is dependent on the Iraqi regime, which now has a stronger grip than ever before."
Khaldun al-Naqeeb, a political sciences professor at Kuwait University, pointed out that Iraq's economic future has been mortgaged for most of the coming century because of the hundreds of billions of dollars in claims for war reparations.
"I believe very strongly that a promise of outside financial help would be an incentive for the Iraqi people to get rid of Saddam Hussein, if they can," he said, calling for the international community to offer to limit the massive reparations.
But politically, even with a change of regime, "it's going to be a rather bleak picture," he said.
"Any new regime is not likely to be democratic or liberal, although there will be a larger role for economic reforms and some political openness," predicted the professor, a Kuwaiti of Iraqi origin.
Naqeeb warned that a post-Saddam Iraq would likewise face "the real and present danger of being dismembered. Tribalism and sectarianism will come to the fore as soon as there is a sudden change."
In the short term, Iraq has been offered a suspension of sanctions in return for its full cooperation with UNMOVIC, a new UN arms inspection regime, under UN Security Council resolution 1284.
"Although Iraq has officially rejected (the resolution), it's possible Iraq will be encouraged to adjust its position in the next few months," said Neil Partrick, head of the Middle East programme of the Royal United Services Institute in London.
He said "constructive ambiguity in the resolution allows for future negotiation of details" and that "the new inspectorate will be easier for Iraq" than the disarmament body evacuated in December 1998 on the eve of a US-British air campaign.
But a former senior arms inspector said it was unlikely Iraq would cooperate, especially since the threat of military action has receded.
"The sanctions are eroding anyway. For the regime, survival is its only concern. The status quo benefits them more since the regime now controls everything," said Colonel Terence Taylor of London's International Institute for Strategic Studies.
"As perceived from Baghdad, it does not have much to gain at the moment from allowing in a new inspection regime," said Taylor, who served as an arms inspector between 1993 and 1998.
"Saddam calculates he is secure from military attack. The threat of force meant something in the 1990s, now the whole political climate has changed.
By Haro Chakmakjian
© Agence France Presse 2000
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com )