- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2003

BAGHDAD — It is no longer difficult to get a table at La Paese, the Italian pizza restaurant favored by U.N. officials, foreign journalists and Iraq’s governmental elite.

But you better go for lunch. The restaurant closes at 7 p.m., about the time it starts to get dark, and the streets become dangerous.

Like so much of Baghdad’s once-bustling public life, the few shops and restaurants that have reopened since the U.S.-led war this spring have discovered that “normal” is a matter of degree.

“I was closed for two months, but now I have decided to reopen,” said Mirya, who carries stylish women’s clothing imported from Turkey.

“But I think I may have come back from Amman [Jordan] too soon. There are very few customers, and they complain about my prices, which are the same.”

Her eyes constantly watched the front door, and the street beyond, looking for the looters who trashed so many other stores in the upscale Mansour area.

“It is not safe to be open yet,” she concluded, as electricity cut out and plunged her shop into a quiet gloom. “I don’t think anyone is ready to go shopping yet. They have too much on their minds.”

Life in Baghdad is definitely better than it was when coalition bombers lit up the night sky, or the weeks afterward when the inky smoke of arson blighted the horizon.

But as the postwar calendar peels away the weeks, many Iraqis are wondering why the days are still so much more chaotic than they were under Saddam Hussein.

The disillusionment is seeping far beyond the Ba’athist strongholds to the general population. Six weeks ago, the Americans were greeted with a cautious welcome.

Today, people are wary about the future, exhausted and overheated.

The electrical grid, a jury-rigged system that dated back to the 1970s in places, collapsed under the stress of the two-week bombing campaign.

As of this week, most of Baghdad had electricity for at least three to four hours at a time, but the intervening blackouts could be devastating to a population living in 108-degree heat.

“How am I supposed to sleep when it’s this hot out?” complains Hamid, a slender boy of 9 whose mother won’t leave the windows open for fear of looters. “I hate the Americans.”

Many hospitals and clinics are starting to get emergency medications and supplies, but doctors say that they are seeing unseasonable spikes in serious diseases caused by poor sanitation and dirty water.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warns that children are susceptible to cholera, typhoid and other diseases that are largely preventable in countries with better public health and hygiene.

The good news is that distribution of the monthly ration basket has been going relatively smoothly.

Most families in the area are getting the same amount of rice, flour, tea and cooking oil as before the war, although many complain that vendors are gouging them for bogus transportation, importing or licensing fees.

“Before, when there was law, they wouldn’t do that,” said one man. “But now they want to steal from us even a few dinars for this or that.”

Capitalism is second nature here. There are so many ways to turn an extra buck on the current chaos.

U.S. soldiers have been cracking down on black-market gas vendors, which has not only stabilized prices at the pump but cut back on ad hoc gas lines that crippled traffic flow in and around Baghdad.

Gas lines have largely disappeared, with few drivers waiting more than a half-hour, compared to a full day only two weeks ago.

The Coalition Provisional Authority has disbursed more than $150 million in U.S. dollars and Iraqi dinar, including back salaries and $50 emergency payments.

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