BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraq's battered capital took several big steps forward Tuesday, the most important of which was returning electricity to large sections of town.
The U.S. military completed the last interviews of about 1,000 applicants for jobs in a new city government and managed a peaceful end to the largest protest the city has seen in the postwar weeks.
But nothing overshadowed the return of electricity. Monday one of the four smokestacks at the city's main generating plant had begun belching smoke. Tuesday, just after 9 a.m., power came on in central Baghdad and in scattered areas through the city.
Residents celebrated by shooting guns into the air. A five-man U.S. Army patrol was walking the streets at the time and thought for a moment that they had come under fire.
"It was just bad timing," said Spc. Ken Clark. "I mean, if I were in their shoes, I'd be celebrating. But I also don't want to get shot, so we're cracking down."
Several weapons were seized, but no arrests were reported.
One resident shot through his electrical wire in his excitement, plunging his house back into the dark.
Plant officials cautioned that no more than 10 percent of the city has power, and the rest of the city would have to wait weeks, if not months. Farkad Jasem, 28, an engineer at the plant, said there were too many downed power lines to supply the whole city. He added that although bombing and shelling did little if any damage to the main plant, several substations were badly damaged.
Outside the Republican Palace, one of Saddam's old homes, which is now the city government headquarters, Army Civil Affairs officials were finishing their second day of interviews, trying to fill basic service roles in Baghdad.
Capt. Stacey Simms said that by Tuesday afternoon, they would have talked to about 1,000 applicants for positions ranging from electrician to doctor.
"The people we hire will be paid by the United States," he said. "The interpreters we've hired are already at work. The rest will be soon enough."
Some portions of the new government will look just like the old.
The Fire Department, for instance, will be largely rehired. Many former policemen from the old regime will be policemen again.
The biggest trouble in hiring skilled labor is avoiding Baath Party officials. Simms said he anticipated hiring former soldiers and some party officials, but that top-level party officials had been blacklisted.
Simms said many of the applicants were desperate. One of those was Acer Salah, 22. Salah said he came from a large family that needed money. He once worked for a company in Baghdad, specializing in mapping and design software. He hopes to find similar work.
"I need work," he said. "I need money."
Tuesday, thousands of protesters clogged downtown streets for a second straight day, demanding the release of Mohamed El Fartusi, a Shiite leader from western Baghdad who had been arrested as he headed to a religious pilgrimage to Karbala.
Protesters converged on the Palestine Hotel and held signs and chanted that he must be released. Then news filtered through the crowd that he had been let go, and everyone went home quietly.
It wasn't clear why the cleric had been detained or why he was released.
Soldiers at the scene said the release had nothing to do with the protests. "We were told it was time to release him. But it sure made things a lot less tense around here," said Spc. Leslie Dillon.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ