Disorder deepens in liberated Baghdad

The US administrator for central Iraq left the post Sunday after just three weeks in office.

Fearful of going out after dark, waiting up to 10 hours to fill their cars with gas, spreading rumors in the absence of reliable media, watching landmark buildings set on fire and wondering who is in charge, the residents of this capital are growing increasingly impatient with the deepening disorder that is plaguing their lives more than a month after US troops took over the city.

"My worst fear is chaos, of all hell breaking loose, and it seems like that is happening," says the Jenan Khadimi, an American-Iraqi who teaches architecture at Baghdad University. "You don't know who is running things."

Amid concerns about Baghdad's stability, the US has launched a major shake-up of its postwar administration. The official in charge of civilian reconstruction efforts in Iraq, retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, is being replaced by L. Paul Bremer, a former State Department counterterrorism chief. Baghdad's de facto mayor, Barbara Bodine, was also scheduled to leave her post as US coordinator for central Iraq Sunday.

Security in Baghdad, the top of everybody's list of priorities, including the Americans', is deteriorating. Gunfire is heard more often than it was two weeks ago, thieves drag drivers from their cars in broad daylight, and looters continue to steal whatever is left from public buildings in full view of passers by.

Sunday, the telecommunications tower, which had survived heavy bombing, was burned and damaged by vandals.

US officials say they cannot fully control the situation. With less than 150,000 troops in Iraq, a country the size of California, "there are some areas that we don't have totally covered," said Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, commander of US ground forces, last week.

Even the presence of US soldiers in Baghdad provides civilians with little reassurance. Though schools were meant to open last week, many families are keeping their children at home, for fear of what might happen to them on their way to class.

Nor does an 11 p.m. curfew ensure nighttime peace. Thieves easily exploit its lax enforcement in the absence of police patrols. "At the beginning we were relieved that the looters did not attack residential districts," says Ms. Khadimi. "But now we are afraid to be in our houses."

Her neighbors, she adds, professional people with no experience with firearms, have begun in recent days to buy AK-47s in self defense.

"Security is a problem in Baghdad, though it is much better across the rest of Iraq," says one coalition official. "It's our number one priority because it is the baseline for everything else." Sixty percent of the capital's ordinary police are reporting for work, he says, "but they don't have the same way of patrolling a beat as we do in the West, so they have to reorganize the way they work."

Nor is anyone really clear what law applies in Iraq. The country is not under martial law, General McKiernan said last week, "but we are in transition. It is a gray area." The situation is complicated, officials point out, by the fact that Saddam Hussein emptied Iraq's jails before the war, allowing 100,000 common criminals onto the streets.

For Baghdadis with cars, a problem almost equal to security is the shortage of gasoline. Adel Hassan al-Mutaar waited from 4:00 a.m. on Saturday until he finally filled up at two in the afternoon at the Al Khalissa station. "You have to line up early, there is no choice," he says. "And to think that we are used to gas stations open 24 hours a day."

Mr. Mutaar was less concerned with the distribution problems that are plaguing the fuel sector - the refinery tanks holding other refined products such as fuel oil are full, slowing production of gasoline - and more worried by the frightful traffic in the capital.

Double-file lines of vehicles waiting for gas - generally hundreds of yards long - block the roads, forcing traffic into oncoming lanes and snarling the streets inextricably.

Elsewhere in Baghdad, drivers routinely ignore even those traffic lights that are working, going the wrong way around traffic circles, barreling the wrong way up one-way streets, and generally converting freedom from traffic cops into citywide chaos.

That is a problem too for those citizens without cars who rely on buses. The lack of buses aggravates their difficulties. At the Sector 4 bus depot in the Shalchiya District, deputy director Adel Saddam Abdul Kudda laments that 45 of his 75 buses have been stolen.

And the drivers complain that they have been promised a $20 emergency wage packet by American soldiers four times, without results so far.

At the same time, when they take their vehicles onto the roads, "the police make problems for us, saying our old bus company identity cards are not valid," says Bassem Hashem Ahmed, a driver. They need new ones to prove they are legitimate employees, not looters, but the bus company does not have the stamp to regularize new cards. It was stolen.

At least the bus drivers are working, when they can find a vehicle to drive.

Most Iraqis have not gone back to their jobs, since the ministries and companies that employed them until the war have not yet restarted their operations.

That has left millions of citizens with no income and no secure source of food, in the absence of the ration system that prevailed under the UN administered "oil for food program" before the war.

So far, no UN food trucks have arrived in Baghdad, and food aid officials say the ration reserves that Iraqis had built up are likely to run out within a matter of weeks.

If the city streets are now clear of roadblocks and burned-out buses and trucks, (they have been dragged onto the sidewalks for collection), they are still piled with trash, uncollected for weeks. In the evenings, residents burn what they can, sending columns of acrid smoke drifting through the city, but much remains in heaps at the curbside.

While water supplies are improving - 65 percent of Iraqis now have potable water, according to retired General Garner, the outgoing head of ORHA - electricity is still a major headache in Baghdad.

Though power stations in the north and south of the country are generating more electricity than their regions need, damage to the national power grid means it cannot be distributed to the capital. There, only 50 percent of needs are being met, and some districts enjoy electricity for only two hours a day.

"Yes, there are a lot of problems, but a lot of work is being done across the board to address them," says the coalition official. "But there are huge challenges."

One challenge at least has an easy solution in Baghdad. If you have stolen a car and worry about the return of law and order, it is not hard to protect yourself. In one of the city's markets on Sunday, a hawker would sell you new license plates and vehicle ownership papers to match them (stolen, along with the necessary official stamp, from the Ministry of Transport). And he would throw in a forged driving license too, all for 30,000 dinars, the equivalent of $15.

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