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Train service resumes in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The first passenger train to leave Baghdad since the war pulled out Wednesday morning, and an anxious Sadak Mohammed was not about to miss it.

So he rose early along with his wife, mother, sister, two children, his cousin, his cousin's wife and their two children and got to Baghdad Station before 7 a.m. Fingering agate worry beads, Mohammed prayed for a safe journey to Basra, a 10- to 12-hour trip with at least five stops in between. "The railroad workers told me there will be Army people on the train but they are not here yet," said Mohammed, an unemployed laborer who was loaded with bread, chicken, tea, water and sweets. "I hope they come."

The restoration of train service, a critical link between relatives, between cities and between jobs, was an important first step in Iraq's painfully slow return to normal, a transformation that is increasingly visible as motorcycle police, garbage trucks and postal workers return to their daily routines.

But like so many other services beginning to come to life again in Baghdad, the train's first trip symbolized the two-steps-forward, one-step-back struggle that Iraqis and the U.S. military continue to face.

A locomotive once reserved only for Saddam Hussein had been pulled out of hiding, but it was connected to six or seven passenger cars thoroughly coated with dust inside and out. The sleeper cars were sidelined by plumbing and electricity problems.

Three policemen were to ride the train, but they had not received pistols promised by the U.S. military. Even as railway officials focused on readying the train for an 8 a.m. departure, soldiers had to chase off looters trying to steal the station's fuel supply.

"This is something the managers have talked about as a key symbol for this country, as far as the economy improving, confidence in their own government and leadership, to start taking over things and getting back on track," said Lt. Col. Bob Pelletier of the 3rd Corps Support Command, who is overseeing the restoration of train service.

"Most of these guys know what they're doing. They're telling us, `We don't want you to repair it. We want to operate our trains, we want to fix our own tracks, the only thing we need is equipment,'" said Pelletier, an Omaha, Neb., reservist who is normally a manager for the Union Pacific Railroad overseeing a corridor that stretches from St. Paul, Minn., to Kansas City.

And there is still the matter of the railway's former reputation for bad toilets, dirty blankets and corrupt police officers.

"The police who used to ride the train, used to steal our money and ask for our ID and mistreat us. They really hurt us," Mohammed said. "And it used to take 18 hours to get to Basra. What train takes 18 hours? Once it broke down and took me 28 hours."

Railroad Police Col. Haytham Ibrahim, 35, played down the problem of bribery during the days of Saddam. "It was something that was very little and rarely happened,"

Ibrahim insisted. "We're making sure that everything is going to go all right, and we want to improve the image of the train station police."

"The folks are concerned because of what they had to deal with in the past regime," Pelletier said. "They've been with it for 20 to 30 years so it's going to be hard to get over what they're grown up with."

None of the railway workers are actually getting paid yet. They are receiving regular emergency payments of $20 to tide them over and will soon be paid their March and April wages, based on their salary in February, Pelletier said.

"We don't care about our salaries now," Ibrahim said. "All we care is the people's safety, but the Americans have told us they are going to give us wages, but until now, we have only promises."

As a train whistle sounded in the station for the first time in weeks, an abaya-clad woman stepped around shattered glass and carried small birdcages onto the train. Another carried a massive sack of belongings on her head past a defaced portrait of the former president while men lugged boxes of ghee, pure vegetable fat, aboard.

Mohammed Hadey, 30, said the heat and dust onboard were not a big problem for him. He chose the train because it was cheap. "By car it's too expensive, so I will live without air conditioning," said Hadey, a former soldier who said he quit the army when Baghdad fell.

A passenger ticket on the train costs 1,000 dinars (about 52 cents), a first-class sleeper seat is 2,000 dinars and a bus ticket is 5,000 dinars.

As the train pulled out of the station at 8:30 a.m., half an hour late, one man on the platform quickly used his finger to write some graffiti on the glass. "Please clean me," he scrawled in Arabic.


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

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