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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 October, 2003, 06:50 GMT 07:50 UK
Baghdad Diary: Back to normality?

By Martin Asser
BBC News Online correspondent in Baghdad

Many BBC News Online readers have e-mailed with questions about ordinary Iraqis and whether life is returning to normal for them.

Baghdad street cleaners
The Baghdad clean-up operation is still underway
To tell you the truth, I'm not sure you can talk about a return to normality for the ordinary people of Iraq.

I have heard some Baghdadis describe their past life under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship as being like a dream in which they experienced many things - often very bad things.

But they could never share those experiences with others for fear of being suspected of disloyalty to the regime or even just harbouring doubts about it.

Secrets revealed

Today, someone told me about something he'd seen years ago while serving as a soldier in Falluja.

A kind of concentration camp, with about 4,000 people living behind barbed wire - men, women, children, the very young and the very old.

Baghdad wedding party
Lively wedding parties have returned to the city's streets

Everything they did was controlled by blasts on whistles - time to eat, time to sleep, time to wash, etc.

So he asked one of his more seasoned comrades what this camp was for and the comrade replied: "Just don't ask, just don't ask."

The vision has been with him ever since - never passed on, never explained.

Fear lifted

You find similar stories all the time. A daughter who never knew what her late father - an intellectual and sometime ambassador - really thought about the regime, because he never spoke about it.

A chauffeur who claimed - and I believed him - that in all his years driving around Baghdad he had never known what Saddam's palaces looked like.

Damaged monument to Saddam Hussein
Saddam Hussein is being erased from the history books

"But they dominate the skyline. It must have occurred to you how he was undertaking these grandiose projects while ordinary Iraqis were starving and dying under the sanctions," I said.

"No, my eyes would never stray from the road ahead, even when I was alone in the car, in case one of Saddam's men saw me looking," he replied.

So if present circumstances are not a return to "normality" as such, at least one can say that to a great extent the insidious fear most Iraqis lived with all their lives has been lifted.

Having said that, I think Iraqis will only be convinced Saddam will not return when they see him in a wooden box - or more likely on an undertakers' trolley in a US army tent, his face caked in makeup, like his two sons Uday and Qusay.

Put that all to one side though - and consider that many things are improving for Iraqis, day by day.

Services returning

Water and electricity, the great bugbears of the immediate post-war period, are now more available - if prone to interruptions every few hours.

Baghdad street scene
Women have become more loathe to appear on the streets

Phones in certain areas are back, and exchanges the Americans bombed are being cleared of rubble and are just starting to be rebuilt.

Public employees' wages are being paid and have been increased from the ludicrously low levels that meant policemen took bribes and teachers ignored pupils at school to concentrate on private tuition.

The fountains in Baghdad's many squares are working and rubbish is being cleared away.

People go out shopping, sit in cafes, hold noisy weddings in the streets.

This week sees the appearance of the new Saddam-free Iraqi Dinar - to go with the Saddam-free schoolbooks and Saddam-free newspapers.

Safety fears

That's the good news.

The bad news I'm afraid is that if the violent regime of Saddam has being lifted, the insecurity of life after it is still very much on Iraqi minds.

US troops in Baghdad
The view of the Americans has changed from liberators to occupiers

Baghdad has had three car bombings in public places in the last week - no-one knows who's behind them or why.

Parts of the city are no-go areas - something never a problem in Saddam's time as miscreants were too scared of the regime.

Women who used not to fear moving around the city now think twice before venturing out onto the streets.

Tensions appear to be rising among Shia factions.

Meanwhile the US helicopters that fly over the city and the armoured convoys that drive through it are not for the most part seen as a liberating force anymore.

Even many of those grateful for America's role in unseating Saddam view the troops as occupiers now.

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