Baghdad struggles to reinvent itself

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- There's hardly a street without a mound of festering garbage or a puddle of sewage. Crime is rampant. Gray concrete blast barriers and coils of barbed wire are everywhere. Power cuts of up to 12 hours a day are routine. Fuel shortages are common.

Traffic is gridlocked for most of the day, but the streets are deserted soon after nightfall. Sporadic gunfire is often heard late at night. Prices are soaring.

Once the capital of a glorious medieval empire and more recently a city known for its Soviet-style order, wide boulevards and grand monuments, today's Baghdad encases the pains of a nation struggling to adjust to new realities, recover from three wars and cope with fears of ongoing violence.

"This is the saddest city in the world," lamented one resident, Qasim al-Sabti.

Life here is not entirely bleak, especially for those who ran afoul of Saddam Hussein's brutal dictatorship.

"I can freely live now. I don't expect anyone to knock on my door at dawn and take me away to prison and I can sue anyone who does me an injustice," said Hussein al-Jaaf, an education official and newspaper columnist who spent seven months in an underground jail cell during Saddam's reign.

The defeat of the regime nine months ago and the end of U.N. sanctions have opened up Iraq to foreign consumer goods once only available to the political elite.

'Still has a pulse'

However, with soaring unemployment, parts of Baghdad have been taken over by armies of street hawkers, mostly children, offering anything from gasoline, to propane, American cigarettes and bananas. Armed security guards are a fixture, as are money changers doing business from behind rickety tables or men charging by the minute to use satellite phones.

"Baghdad has fallen into a dark age, but it still has a pulse," said painter Nouri al-Rawi, 75. "We are being tested again."

With garbage collection erratic, Baghdadis have taken to scrawling graffiti on outside walls urging people not to dump their refuse near their homes.

Some Baghdadis trace the city's decline to long before the arrival of the Americans. Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, followed by the 1991 defeat in the Gulf War, brought U.N. sanctions that crippled the economy and reduced most Iraqis to poverty. Crime and corruption flourished.

Others, however, blame the Americans either for the current miseries or for not reversing them.

U.S. officials insist many of the inconveniences are growing pains as the society transforms from autocracy to democracy.

In December, for example, gasoline supplies ran low, forcing Iraqis to wait for hours in mile-long lines. The days of the long gas station lines are over. But traffic congestion has not abated.

"I have not moved a single centimeter in 30 minutes," said Khidr Nasser, his taxi stuck in traffic. "I still make enough to feed myself, wife and two children, but I cannot afford repairs."

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