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

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

"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.

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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.

"We are at a very crucial crossroads, and things could go up or down," says Roland Huguenin-Benjamin, spokesman for the ICRC in Baghdad. "The Americans are deeply, keenly aware of the problems and scale of the emergency."

At the start of his four-day visit here and to northern Iraq, Garner, whose initial team of about 19 civilian administrators is to grow to about 450 over the next week, vowed to restore water and electricity "as soon as we can." According to the Geneva Conventions, it is the duty of the US, as the occupying power, to restore such basic services at once. Last week, US forces had promised that electricity would come back on within 48 hours - but most of Baghdad is still in the dark after dusk.

"Marines are not civil engineers - they must put people who know [the systems] to work," says Mr. Huguenin-Benjamin. "When we brought the [Iraqi] engineers together, it was like a Christmas gift for them."

American forces have been eager to help, though. On Saturday, military trucks delivered 95,000 liters of fuel to various points across the city, to power water pumps and generators and hospitals.

American medical units used the Monitor as a conduit to offer the ICRC several X-ray machines, a CAT scan, and other medical equipment for distribution to looted public hospitals. The items had been found at the main Republican Palace on the Tigris River.

On Sunday, the US military opened a warehouse in Baghdad to store 1,400 tons of wheat flour delivered by the UN World Food program. The food is to be distributed within a month, as Baghdadis have remaining reserves left over from double government rations since August.

Besides restoring water and electrical power, restarting refuse collection - despite the theft of many of the city's garbage trucks - is also a priority, before rising temperatures turn the piles of trash into a new health hazard.

As in countless other Baghdad households, the Methboubs are wondering when the promises of American assistance to Iraq will improve their daily lives.

"We are surprised [the Americans] have been here two weeks, and still there is no electricity," says Methboub, pointing to a deep freeze unit in her living room that daughter Amal says is empty: "It's become a cupboard for clothes."

The television gathers dust, along with the VCR, and an aunt's air conditioner that was brought here for safekeeping.

The last propane gas from three cylinders - which saw them through the war - ran out on Saturday. Until then, Methboub, a widow whose husband died in a 1996 car accident, had sold bread to neighbors that she baked using the gas for heat.

"I can't do it any more. We have to buy bread from outside, and it's not enough for the children," she says. Propane can be bought, but the price has shot up to 20 times the prewar price.

Lack of electricity means that the water pump that once brought water to the second-floor apartment no longer works. So each day, more than 30 vessels - from leaking buckets to plastic soda bottles to a one-gallon blue diesel engine oil container - are toted upstairs.

"I do six buckets all alone!" shouts Hibba, 11, one of Methboub's twin daughters. "I do eight!" shouts Duha, not to be outdone by her twin. Methboub just points to her legs, to indicate how sore they have become, going up and down the dark stairway with loads of water.

"Most of the day we spend on these things," she says. "Before, we made our own bread, and had water. Now we're just wasting a lot of time."

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