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Glimpses of Baghdad from street level

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Baghdad is getting better.

There is little to eat here in the Iraqi capital. Much of what food exists is rotting behind shop fronts that have been shuttered for days, or weeks. The few grocers who have opened have little to sell, pointing to mounds of moldy bread and freezers that haven't had electricity for days. Trash and broken glass cover the sidewalks.

But locals note that a few more stores open every day. Downtown Monday was a jumble of honking car horns and blaring music. One store owner, who opened Monday for the first time in a week, said, "Now, soon, more will open. Every day, maybe every hour."

Baghdad is getting better.

There is no work. When the bombing began in March, many fled to the country, and to cities such as Basra and Nasiriyah, which, despite their prominence in the headlines, never attracted the air war that plagued the capital. So the stores are closed, and there's no need for clerks.

Locals gather each morning by 6 outside the razor-wire perimeter of the Sheraton and Palestine hotels in the center of town, hoping for work. The hotels are an oasis of activity, overflowing with journalists, aid workers and coalition military officials carrying wads of foreign currency. Locals aren't allowed in the two-block area, however. They stand outside, and push passports and resumes into the hands of young Marines, who study the Arabic seriously, before returning the documents. "Not today, but maybe next week," they say.

Baghdad is getting better.

There is little safety. As soon as night falls—and darkness is close to complete in a city where the only electricity comes from a very few generators—the gunfire, an occasional backdrop in the day, becomes more frequent. Pop, pop from a handgun will be answered by the pa-pa-pa-pa-pa from a Marine's M16. Marine officials say it's of no concern. "We're getting things under control, really," one said.

On the street, there's less optimism. "Well, this street was OK, last night," a young Marine corporal said. "A block over it was going all night."

Baghdad is getting better.

There is little trust. Throughout the city, residents have piled war debris, twisted pieces of machinery, bricks and concrete chunks from fallen buildings, to block the streets leading to their homes, hoping to keep whoever doesn't live there away. Two boys, neither yet 10 years old, spent an entire afternoon piling a barricade. As they finished, they swept inches of dirt and brick dust from the street in front of their homes, pushing the dirt into the barricade as well. Then, as dusk neared, they raced back to their homes, and slammed the doors as they went inside.

Marine Steve Box, on guard in a dangerous area, said that for the last two days, the residents on surrounding blocks had brought food, cooked hamburger with bread and tomatoes, and had promised to look for souvenir trinkets. "It's dangerous here. I hate this post. Too many bad guys are driving around. But these are some really good folks, right around us."

Baghdad is getting better.

There is no structure. The people who venture from their homes worry about who is in control. Motorists drive on either side of the road. Taxi drivers say car-jacking is now a plague, and they carry handguns to protect themselves. Those who can't lock their cars behind metal gates remove the fuses. But a 50-year-old man walking down the street that runs along the Tigris River stopped to shake the hand of a stranger, pat him on the back.

"The weather will get hotter and hotter, but our days will be better soon," he said. "Baghdad is getting better. Maybe we keep saying this, and it is the truth."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.