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Iraqis lose patience, hope U.S. officials get true picture of Baghdad's woes

BAGHDAD—When three U.S. senators visit Iraq's capital on Monday, they will find two Baghdads.

American officials from the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) have air-conditioned rooms at the former Republican Palace and the city's convention center. They have MCI cell phones with U.S. area codes, a perk available to no one else in the city, and they travel in large, shiny SUVs with Army Humvees in front and behind.

The delegation from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—Sens. Joseph Biden Jr., D-Del., Charles Hagel, R-Neb. and Richard Lugar, R-Ind.,—might have lunch one of the city's better hotels, where the swimming pools are kept a healthy-looking blue.

That Baghdad, though still tattered at the edges, is a city on the mend, albeit slowly. As L. Paul Bremer, the top American administrator, and his fellow CPA officials often point out, the city looks better now than it did in mid-April, when looters were everywhere and the sky was dark with smoke.

If the senators spend time speaking with average Iraqis, however, they will learn that for most of its 5 million or so residents, life in Baghdad is an infuriating, dysfunctional experience, one that in time could turn the population against the American who liberated them from Saddam Hussein.

Nineteen U.S. soldiers have been killed in hostile action since May 1, the most recent in a grenade attack 12 miles south of Baghdad on Sunday, but U.S. officials blame the violence on diehards from Saddam's regime and foreign Arab fighters, many of them dispatched to Iraq by Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

But the disorder, discomfort and violence of everyday life are fueling lingering fears that Saddam and his henchmen might somehow outlast the U.S.-led war against them and making some Iraqis wonder if they were better off with the devil they knew than with the Americans they don't.

"Saddam was not a just man, but he provided for us," said Laith Yahia, a street vendor. "There was nothing like this in his time; there was no looting, and there was electricity."

Without back-up generators, thousands of families are sweltering in 120 degree-plus weather when the electricity goes out, as it does for 20 hours a day in some neighborhoods. Children get sick from drinking the water: The United Nations Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq last week reported that cases of diarrhea have tripled in Baghdad.

There's no working phone system, only expensive satellite phones. The night is full of gunfire. The local police force, propped up by the U.S. military, hasn't shed its Saddam-era reputation for corruption.

Driving is often dangerous, with cars creating their own lanes and proceeding upstream against the flow of traffic. U.S. Army roadblocks keep motorists waiting for more than an hour as soldiers search for weapons that most locals don't want to surrender. Lines at gas stations, while shorter than they were a couple of months ago, are still as slow as the day is long.

Large groups of men stand outside the Republican Palace, hoping to get jobs. When they get too close to the coils of concertina wire, soldiers scream "Get Back! Get Back!" in English, which none of the job-hunting Iraqis understands.

Bremer recently said that many of Baghdad's woes are the result of Saddam ignoring the city's and the country's basic needs. For example, Bremer said, he saw 1960s turbine engines at a local power plant.

"This is typical of the underinvestment in major infrastructure that's been going on now for almost 30 years; you had a government here which spent about a third of gross domestic product every year on military expenditures," Bremer said at a press conference last week. "And the rest of the GDP, I don't know how much was spent on being stolen, building big palaces all over the place and being put God knows where."

But for many Iraqis, Saddam isn't the issue anymore. The issues are phones, water, electricity, crime, health and traffic, and so far, they've been harder to defeat than Saddam's Republican Guard.

Here's a summary of the major problems plaguing Baghdad:

_ Crime. Like almost everyone else in Baghdad, Sahan Youuness doesn't have a way to call police. So she couldn't summon a squad car when four drunken strangers appeared at her house earlier this month, asking for "Omar." After she told them that no one by that name lived there, and that no one else was home, the group pulled the 49-year-old Youuness from her house, tossed a bag over her head and threw her inside a minivan, according to her account to investigators.

For 24 hours, she was tortured and raped. They burned her with cigarettes, bit her, punched her and took turns violating her. Before they took her home, they showed her a closet filled with hand grenades and other weapons and threatened to blow up her home and kill her family if she told "the Americans" what had happened.

Youuness' family contacted the local police station anyway, and help arrived in the form of a joint patrol of Army Military Police and Iraqi police officers. Standing in front of her home, darting nervous glances up and down the street, Youuness whispered her story to an Army translator. There were bruises across her body.

_ Traffic. Standing in the broiling sun and suffering through a wind-whipped dust storm, Sada Nagress was just trying to cross the road. She stood at the Diyalla Bridge, which connects Baghdad to southern Iraq. "The bridge was destroyed almost three months ago but we must cross it every day," Nagress said.

Saddam Hussein bombed the four-lane bridge before the war to stop the American advance to the north. More than two months after the fall of Baghdad, twisted reinforcing bars still spike from the bridge. Only one lane is open, a makeshift one slapped on top of the bridge.

"We are suffering from this bridge from the beginning of this war until now," said Ali Alwan, who often volunteers to direct traffic. "Once I was stuck for four hours. It is very dangerous. Already one car has fallen into the river. If they do not fix the bridge soon, it will collapse. And this is the main entrance into Baghdad from the south!"

_ Electricity. Dr. Mahdi Jasim Moosa wiped the sweat from his face. At home, Moosa said, he has no air conditioning or fans after the electricity goes out, which is often. He tries to fight it, but he often gets angry as he swelters in his living room.

At work, though, the power outages are a real problem. Moosa is the director of Baghdad's Yarmuk hospital, which serves some 2 million people. Electrical outages at the hospital, Moosa said, leave doctors in the dark in the middle of surgery. There's a generator at the hospital, he said, "but it works for one or two hours, not for 10 or 12 hours."

It's happened several times, Moosa said. The doctors have either asked people to shine flashlights at the patient's body or wheeled the bed close to a window.


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

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