Life Returning to Normal in Baghdad, But Future Uncertain
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ More than two months after Iraq’s bruising defeat in the Persian Gulf War, once-proud Baghdad is slowly getting back on its feet.
Riverside restaurants have reopened. Some neighborhoods have electricity and telephone service again. With gasoline rationing lifted, Baghdad’s notorious traffic jams have made a comeback.
But there’s some discontent beneath the facade of a great city returning to life. A few days ago, the ancient capital celebrated its 1,262nd birthday, but its mayor found little reason to rejoice.
″We’ve been put back at least 50 years. We’re going to be living in the days of the 1940s,″ said Mayor Khalid Abdul-Munim Rasheed.
In the fragile days of recovery from relentless allied bombing, many Iraqis ride an emotional roller-coaster.
For example, when it was reported that British Prime Minister John Major was urging continued U.N. sanctions while Saddam Hussein remains in power, some Baghdadis stopped speaking of their hopes and instead voiced their despair.
Everyday life in Baghdad has largely resumed. Gaping holes and twisted girders of bombed-out government buildings no longer draw a second glance.
″We’ve restored 70 percent of our electricity. We’ve restored our refinery and we’ve done all of this without any outside help,″ a municipal official boasted.
But there are fears that the 120-degree temperatures of summer could cause epidemics. The water and sewer systems, largely wrecked in the bombing, have not been fully repaired.
Only a few bridges still span the muddy Tigris river; the others were bombed.
At night, fish restaurants along the Tigris are now brightly lit and jammed with customers. Three weeks ago, like the rest of the city, the restaurants were in darkness because there was no electricity.
Telephones are again operating in more than a half-dozen districts of the capital. In many cases, people can only telephone within their own neighborhoods, but it is an important step toward normal life for many Iraqis who felt isolated during the war.
″It’s unbelievable. Just to be able to pick up the phone and call a friend again is fantastic,″ said Samira Hammadi, a housewife in the Daura district of south Baghdad.
Officials expect other exchanges to be restored in the next few weeks to link up the whole city. Inter-city connections will have to wait for another couple of months. It could take many months to rebuild the country’s telecommunications system.
Iraq’s oil refineries were prime targets for the allied bombers. But Kamil Jaafar, head of Baghdad’s Daura refinery, estimated that after hasty repairs, often with materiel cannibalized from other facilities, his facility and Baiji refinery in central Iraq are handling some 260,000 barrels of oil a day. Pre- war capacity was around 700,000 barrels a day.
People criticize the government and Saddam more openly than they have done in the past. Many say Saddam must go, although few have any idea how that should be achieved - through rebellion, coup or the ballot box.
If the U.N. sanctions are not lifted soon, discontent could grow. Saddam is well aware of that.
He and his government understand that they have to get oil exports going again, that factories have to start up, that food will have to be imported in large quantities if they are to stay in power.
Saddam still has half of his million-man army to protect him, even if he did lose thousands of tanks, armored vehicles and guns in the Kuwait theater.
But his once-absolute power has weakened. In one small but telling gesture Saturday, the English-language Baghdad Observer did not carry a cover picture of Saddam for the first time in 10 years.
A spokesman for the Information Ministry, which publishes the paper, said such photos will now be used only when news events merit them.
At the Baghdad Horsemanship Club on the city’s outskirts, thousands of people turn out for weekly races that resumed late last month. The atmosphere is festive, with cold beer, soft drinks, apples from Turkey, popsicles and sandwiches on sale at concession stands.
Some of the Arabian steeds are said to be owned by senior government officials, and the word is that they usually win. Betting windows under the grandstand were jammed Friday as people jostled to wager on the next race.
At a beer counter, a visitor asked which were the horses owned by government officials so he could make a bet. That drew a sly smile from one man.
″Never bet on the government,″ he said. ″You always lose.″