There's balsamic vinegar in Baghdad but...

On a reporter's return to postwar Iraq's capital, he finds evidence that the daily lives of Baghdadis are improving - with caveats.

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The visitor returning to Baghdad after three months' absence cannot fail to be struck by improvements in the Iraqi capital's life.

But there is always a "but."

Start with the question of getting here. The daily Beechcraft flight from Amman, Jordan, is a welcome innovation for aid workers and journalists allowed to take it: The 13-hour slog along the desert road from the Jordanian capital is exhausting and infested by bandits.

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But - as the little plane banks hard and plunges into a spiral descent over the Baghdad airport, you know the stomach-churning maneuver is necessary because of the threat of surface-to-air missiles: two were launched at a US military transport during Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's recent trip.

When you land, US soldiers and their Iraqi assistants man a makeshift immigration office, entering your details into a computer, taking your photograph on a digital camera, and even stamping your passport. It's a far cry from the casual wave with which an American soldier welcomed me to Iraq at the Jordanian border when I came just after the war.

But - immigration formalities are not conducted in the arrivals building, but at the back of a stifling aircraft hangar, filled with row upon row of metal baskets with mail for the occupying troops. Nobody is talking about opening the airport's usual facilities for another few months.

At night, it is a relief to fall asleep to the hum of an air-conditioning unit instead of the crackle of small arms fire, as was the case the last time I was here. Since arriving three days ago, I have heard just a single shot.

But the boom of a distant explosion, which prompted only a raised eyebrow from the man cleaning my hotel room, is a new cause for concern. Guerrilla forces have turned to using "improvised explosive devices" - homemade, remotely detonated bombs - against US military patrols in the city.

Iraqi policemen, smartly dressed in pale blue shirts and dark blue trousers, are a fairly common sight nowadays - a sign that local forces are taking over at least some of the simpler duties of law enforcement from American GI's.

But when you see one policeman stopping cars at a checkpoint and five of his colleagues sitting in the shade nearby, it's because the man working would not dare try to enforce his authority without moral support from a group of his fellow officers.

Baghdad's bustling sidewalks are piled high with merchandise - local produce such as peaches, plums, okra, and dates, or imports like freezers and TV sets that have flooded the country since the new US authorities suspended customs duties. (You can even buy balsamic vinegar.) And novelties like Internet cafes have not worn off.

As private companies tentatively begin work, and employees at defunct state enterprises collect emergency payments, many Iraqis have money to spend after weeks of wondering how to make ends meet.

But, in some unsafe districts of the capital, shopkeepers and stall holders lock up and go home by mid-afternoon, fearful of the thieves who still run rampant.About 70 carjackings a day are reported in Baghdad. Kidnapping for ransom is on the rise. And below the surface hustle of city life lies a menacing lawlessness that Iraqis say is their main complaint nearly five months after US troops arrived here.

They complain, too, about the lack of electricity, though many districts are on a 'three hours on, three hours off' regime, which is better than the two hours every four hours they suffered during most of the summer.

But US officials say that even if they didn't have to battle saboteurs who blow up electrical pylons, and even if they got all the city's generating plants working again, the decrepit state of Iraq's national grid would mean power shortages for months, if not years, to come.

That is not reassuring. And for Iraqis who never imagined the sort of mess that postwar looting has made of their country, it is the sort of prediction that makes their glass look half empty, rather than half full.

But...

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