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Baghdad life inches toward normalcy

The US chief of Iraqi reconstruction, Jay Garner, arrived in Baghdad Monday.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 22, 2003


When the garbage truck finally pulled up to collect mountains of trash left during a month of war, there was rejoicing.

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"We had a celebration," says Karima Selman Methboub, a Baghdad mother of eight who is carefully watching Iraq's slow return to life.

But this was no ordinary garbage man: He was a thief who had stolen the truck, and he wanted the equivalent of 17 cents per family to haul the rubbish away.

It was a bargain - and also a small measure of the difficulties in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Arriving in Baghdad for the first time Monday, Jay Garner, the retired US general who is to spearhead Iraq's reconstruction, described the tasks ahead succinctly: "Everything is the challenge."

Still, there are increasing signs of a return to normalcy. Though US forces on Sunday imposed an 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, more and more stores are opening, butcher shops are full of hanging meat, and even some restaurants are opening their doors.

During the day, traffic jams clog the dusty streets - just as before the war. The constantly shifting US military checkpoints, where tanks sometimes block entire thoroughfares, add to the snarl.

But, even with little left to steal, looting persists, despite joint Iraqi police and US military patrols. Arsonists still torch ministry buildings daily at dusk. And utilities are still lacking. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is assisting the US by finding Iraqi electrical and water treatment specialists to restore services.

Mr. Garner's arrival coincides with a shift in US forces in the capital indicating a change in emphasis from combat to reconstruction. Marines pulled back early Sunday from east Baghdad, and fresh US Army units deployed, leaving the entire city in the hands of the Army.

Garner's arrival also coincided with the capture of two more men on the list of Washington's 55 "most wanted" people from the former regime. US troops arrested Iraq's science minister, and Mr. Hussein's sole surviving son-in-law gave himself up, bringing to seven the number of men in custody from the US list.

US officials say it may be three months before an interim administration can be established. The Pentagon's preferred candidate, Ahmad Chalabi, who was in exile for 45 years, and is wanted for embezzlement in Jordan, is already running into trouble trying to demonstrate popular support.

While Mr. Chalabi has top-level support in the Pentagon, he is treated with disdain by the State Department and the CIA - and by many Iraqis.

After a press conference on Friday in the plush Baghdad hunting club, in which Chalabi spoke of "so many" people trying to have an audience with him, a vehicle flying an opposition flag and with his portrait taped to the windshield was riddled with holes from bullets that shredded the car seats and grazed the driver.

This uncertain time between war and peace is bringing new anxieties to many Iraqis.

For the Methboubs - whose days are spent waiting in long bread lines, hoisting countless buckets of water up dark stairwells to their apartment, and praying for the lights to come on again - the war has yet to end.

"This situation is much more dangerous than the war itself, because we don't know about the future," says Mrs. Methboub, whose impoverished family the Monitor first met last fall.