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Life has improved for Baghdad families, but only at home

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The war seems far removed from Mrs. Abbas' kitchen, which is bathed in the smell of a cake baking in the oven and the chatter from an Oprah episode on satellite television.

But as she separated eggs for another cake, she anxiously peered out the window, looking for a child who wasn't home from school yet. All her fears—car bombs, misguided mortars, kidnappings—came rushing into her modest home.

"For me, at home it's better now," she said, asking that her full name not be used for security reasons. "But outside, no, it's very bad."

In the two years since the United States invaded Iraq, middle class Iraqi families such as the Abbases have learned to carve some semblance of normalcy out of war. They enjoy the things that have improved since the U.S.-led invasion, such as access to the outside world via satellite television and the Internet, and they accommodate the things that haven't gotten better, such as electric service. Many, however, say the most important thing, security, has gotten worse and shows no signs of improving.

On the positive side:

_Food is no longer scarce, though money often is as Iraq's economy struggles.

_Landline telephones sometimes work, which is better than it was in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, when satellite telephones brought in by foreigners were the only form of communication. Iraqis now have mobile phone service that works on and off—a luxury unheard of under Saddam Hussein.

_Internet and satellite television are available to anyone who can afford them, also new in a country that was largely isolated from the world under Saddam's dictatorship.

Yet many things haven't gotten better:

_Electricity is still sporadic, and some families, such as the Abbases, share a neighborhood generator.

_Other basic utilities such as water and sewage are still unreliable in many areas, and heavy rains flood streets and homes.

_Oil production hasn't recovered, even to pre-war levels, leaving average Iraqis waiting in gas lines that stretch for miles and hoarding cooking fuel on their patios.

_More than 160,000 foreign troops remain in the country and patrol the streets, constant reminders that Iraqis can't handle their own security yet.

Mrs. Abbas, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, faces the war from her kitchen.

She quit her job as an office manager to open a bakery business, and as she bakes cakes in her kitchen, she listens for bombs, judging the distance and direction to figure out which family members to call and check on.

"I'm spending more time with my children, watching them grow up," she said. "They need me more now than they did when they were younger."

She worries every minute that her 15-year-old daughter and 19-year-old son aren't home, and when they get home from school, she usually makes them stay.

"I used to come home at 11 or 12 at night," her son, Ali, said, after returning from school on time and to his mother's relief. "Now, I have to be here at eight. And I can't go to faraway areas. I just spend my time on the computer."

But his mother worries that the war is preventing Ali from enjoying the independence that young men his age are supposed to have.

"Last week, my son wanted to go to an area with a lot of restaurants by the river," she explained. "It's far, but I really can't tell him not to go. Right here at the door something can happen. So you have to let him be a man."

Sitting at the kitchen table, her 80-year-old mother-in-law interrupted.

"Did he go?" she asked sharply.

Mrs. Abbas said he did. Her mother-in-law complained that she wasn't told.

"I can't tell you some things," she said, wearily. "You would go crazy."

After Ali put his books away, his mother quizzed him about what route he took to school and back. Sheepishly, he admitted that he'd taken the airport highway.

"I always tell you not to take the airport road," she scolded. It's considered the most dangerous stretch of pavement in Baghdad, with frequent attacks on American patrols. The Americans also represent danger for Baghdad residents—they've mistakenly fired on civilians who got too close to patrols, and U.S. soldiers at a checkpoint recently shot and killed an Italian security worker rushing a freed hostage to the airport.

"But the traffic was really heavy," Ali told his mother. "We needed to save time."

While he and his father text-messaged jokes to each other across the kitchen table, his mother worried that she hadn't been able to reach a client who's expecting a cake. The landline phones hadn't worked for three days.

"If we don't hear from her today, we eat the cake," she said cheerfully, as she put the finishing touches on a chicken-and-rice lunch.

The reconstruction of Iraq's infrastructure has been slow. Rick Whitaker, the infrastructure team leader for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Baghdad, said security problems and the initial failure to realize how bad maintenance had been under Saddam have caused the delays.

"Our trucks are attacked and equipment destroyed," he said. "Trucks go missing and are sometimes never found. ... We have had engineers who are identified as working on our sites and then get a letter in the mail saying they have to quit. If they don't quit, we've had people murdered."

The insurgents are targeting anyone and anything associated with the United States or the American-backed Iraqi government, including electric power lines and oil pipelines.

Despite the setbacks, Whitaker said, progress is being made. The free market is beginning to fill some of the gaps: With few reliable landline telephones, three mobile phone companies have entered the market and are enrolling subscribers faster than they can put up towers.

Around the Abbas kitchen table, Ali proudly showed off his mobile phone, which can play short video clips and has Avril Lavigne and Metallica ring tones.

"We were forbidden from having these phones, the satellite TV, but having security now would be better than all of this," his grandmother said.

"We don't mind the power interruptions," she said. "We don't mind anything else, problems with the water, the phones. These are things we also had to put up with during Saddam's regime. But all these armed people and explosions, this is what is hard to deal with."

She contradicted herself moments later, in the conflicted way so many Iraqis feel about the pace of reconstruction.

"Why is it that before, under Saddam, everything worked like a clock?" she said. "Saddam was a brutal oppressor, a tyrant, but people did not live under the conditions they endure now. During Saddam, there were problems with the electricity, but really not as bad as this because you would know the timetable for the power cuts and you would be prepared. And we know we are a country rich in oil. How can we suffer from a lack of kerosene? That never happened before. Back then, no one would dare sabotage a pipeline."


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Shatha al Awsy contributed to this report.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050316 USIRAQ anniv


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