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Signs of normalcy slowly return to parts of Iraq; ex-Iraqi finance minister arrested

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraq's capital got its first post-war newspaper on Saturday, published by the Communist Party, and Marines didn't shoot when a car backfired. Down south in Basra, doctors are treating more feuding neighbors and car crash victims and fewer people wounded in the war.

Gunfire still sometimes echoes in the night, and while children and older Iraqis wave playfully at U.S. and British troops, many young men turn their faces away when a military convoy passes them.

But slowly, like a swimmer testing the water before diving in, most of Iraq's main cities are returning to some level of normalcy 12 days after the major fighting of Gulf War II ended with the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.

The mood reflects the ambivalence of many Iraqis over their situation—rid of a brutal dictator but now occupied by U.S. and British troops and facing an uncertain future of internal ethnic, tribal and religious tensions.

Some isolated pockets of armed resistance still remain.

U.S. troops outside Baghdad imposed a 7 p.m. curfew for the first time Saturday night, with orders to shoot anything that moves west of the Euphrates River.

Four U.S. soldiers patrolling Baghdad were wounded on Saturday when a young Iraqi girl handed them an explosive and it blew up. One soldier's leg was amputated; none suffered life-threatening injuries.

The northern city of Kirkuk, the center of one of the largest petroleum reserves in the Middle East, remained up for grabs on Saturday as coalition forces and Kurdish troops were attacked by well-armed and vengeful Saddam Hussein loyalists.

The nearby northern city of Mosul, the third-largest in Iraq, has not been fully controlled by the several hundred coalition troops deployed there. The city of nearly 2 million people is still wracked by daily arson and nightly gun battles, by vigilantism and communal violence between Kurds and Arabs.

In the area west of Mosul toward the Syrian border, coalition troops continued to hunt Saturday for escaping military officers, senior Baath Party officials and members of Saddam's family.

In Baghdad, another of Iraq's top leaders was taken into coalition custody, along with the personal secretary of Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal who had taken refuge in Baghdad, but who Iraqi officials claimed committed suicide last year, U.S. Central Command announced Saturday.

Iraqi police captured Hikmat Mizban Ibrahim al Azzawi, the former deputy prime minister of economics and finance in the regime of Saddam Hussein. Hikmat was no. 45 on a list of 55 former Iraqi leaders the American military said "must be pursued and brought to justice." He is the eight of diamonds in an American deck of cards that identifies especially wanted members of Saddam's regime.

Police nabbed Hikmat in Baghdad on Friday, making him the fifth member on the list to surrender or be captured. Central Command would not disclose details of his capture, but the military said it was the first time the reinstated police force had arrested one of Iraq's former rulers.

Baghdad's more than 5 million people still have to boil their drinking water and live in darkness unless they have private generators, and shopkeepers are slowly shoveling the debris of war and looting onto gutters.

About one in 10 shops is open, more in the heart of the city, less in some neighborhoods where swarms of looters stripped everything from supermarkets to mom-and-pop tailoring shops.

Traffic is again dense, partly because traffic lights are out and many major intersections are manned by teen-age volunteers, but the jams also signal that more people are leaving their homes.

Local police in blue pants, white shirts and French-style blue Kepi hats were a greater presence on the streets Saturday than they have been, and for the first time were armed with AK-47 assault rifles.

A hidden stash of at least $620 million that American soldiers uncovered behind a false wall at Saddam Hussein's presidential palace complex was airlifted to Kuwait on Saturday for safekeeping.

The first newspaper published since the war ended had people eagerly reaching for copies of the six-page tabloid, Tarik al Shahab, or The People's Way, owned by Iraq's tiny orthodox Communist Party.

Iraqi television and radio are still off the air, although Baghdad residents with powerful antennas can receive Arabic-language broadcasts from neighboring Iran.

Signs that peace was returning popped up around the capital, where for three decades the only street marches and posters were those approved by Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party.

In a country where the Shiite Muslim majority was long oppressed by Saddam's predominantly Sunni regime, some 200 people marched past the Palestine Hotel, where many foreign journalists are staying, behind a banner that read "Sunni+Shiia+Christian=Iraq."

On their last day in Baghdad, Marines of Kilo Company handed out humanitarian rations to Iraqis in a neighborhood they had patrolled and cleared of weapons for the past week.

"It means the world to me to see smiles on their faces," said Sgt. Sam Mortimer of Grant's Pass, Ore. Mortimer had ridden from Kuwait on an amphibious vehicle and had seen fighting and cleared several villages of weapons before arriving in Baghdad the day it was liberated.

"They were oppressed. Not any more," said Mortimer. "It's awesome to help people."

Other signs promised public shame for those who took part in the wild looting spree that followed the regime's fall.

"If you do not return the things you stole, 25 million people will hate you," said one sign while another said, "Return the stolen things or we will write your name on this wall."

The anti-looting messages appeared to be having some effect.

All morning Saturday, people carried computers and compact disc containers and pushed copying machines through the streets to businesses that had been looted.

Courtyards of local mosques were filling with stolen goods after religious leaders declared them the property of all Iraqis, and said they would be responsible for re-distributing the goods equitably.

The grounds of the Police Academy in Baghdad were jammed with stolen cars and goods, sometimes returned voluntarily, sometimes seized from looters.

Meanwhile, Khala Khadr al Salahat surrendered to Marines on Friday night in Baghdad. Khala was a member of the Abu Nidal terrorist organization, serving as personal secretary to Nidal, a notorious terrorist from the 1980s.

Iraqi authorities reported that Abu Nidal, whose real name was Sabri al Banna, committed suicide in Baghdad last summer, although there were rumors that Saddam's secret services murdered him.

Last week U.S. Special Forces in Baghdad captured Palestinian terrorist Abul Abbas, who was convicted in Italy in the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship and murder of an invalid American passenger on board, Leon Klinghoffer.

"We said all along that we believe that Iraq provided a safe haven for terrorists, as well as providing training grounds for terrorists organizations," said Marine Capt. Stewart Upton, a Central Command spokesman at coalition headquarters in Qatar.

The southern cities of Najaf, Karbala and Nasiriyah were all reported calm.

Marines have restored most services in Nasiriyah, Central Command said Saturday. The city's four pumping and treatment stations now run off generators, and six million gallons of water are being distributed daily from the Ash Shatrah water plant north of the city.

Police and fire departments there are also working, after Marines registered 200 Iraqis to guard critical facilities and provide traffic control. Two of the city's three hospitals are operational, along with 12 other clinics. Marines also distributed 62 crates of food donated from Kuwait and medical supplies from Australia.

In the southern city of Basra, the sound of machine gun fire still rattles the night and British Challenger tanks and heavily armed soldiers still patrol the streets of Iraq's second-largest city, with more than 1 million people.

Yet Basra has become more secure in the 12 days since British troops swept into the heart of the city. Many soldiers no longer wear helmets, instead using berets as a psychological signal that the fighting is over.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, electricity and running water has been restored to 30 to 40 percent of Basra residents. But both services are still unattainable for most residents.

Most Basra residents still depend on water provided by British troops, and people pushing wheelbarrows filled with buckets, gasoline cans, anything that can carry water, always crowd the arriving water tankers.

A British tank often guards that water trucks, to help keep order.

"Mister, mister. Water," one little boy begged.

The looting has died down in Basra but lawlessness still reigns. Doctors in hospitals have noted an increase in treating wounds from feuding between neighbors and road accidents due to the absence of police patrols.

British soldiers have begun joint patrols with some Iraqi policemen who have returned to their old jobs, but in most parts of the city there are still no visible signs of police.

Fuel remains a major problem in Basra, although on Friday two gas stations opened for business, at least for the day. People pushed their cars to join the long snaking line at one of the stations.

There's also a shortage of propane gas for ovens, preventing many restaurants from reopening. But retail food shops don't seem to have a problem. Markets are brimming with fruits and vegetables.

British military officials declared Friday that there is no humanitarian crisis in Basra or the outlying areas.

"We're not fire-fighting anymore," said a senior humanitarian adviser to the British military, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The system is up and running. It is now about plugging gaps and disruptions caused by the war."


(Knight Ridder correspondents Mark McDonald in Kirkuk, Patrick Peterson, Andrea Gerlin and Carol Rosenberg in Baghdad, and Peter Smolowitz in Doha, Qatar, contributed to this report.)


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ