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Wednesday, 24 April, 2002, 18:46 GMT 19:46 UK
Booming Baghdad in fear of US
Our car nudged its way through the familiar, congested street.
The old dilapidated vehicles around us were as I remember them from my last visit 18 months ago - billowing out diesel fumes - and shrouding the district in a grey, hazy film that catches you at the back of the throat.
Shorja market - in the heart of Baghdad - its same heaving self. Mothers in their Islamic dress - their black abayas caught in the gentle breeze, negotiating their way around the different stalls.
I couldn't put my finger on it - but something was out of place.
I got out and walked around the narrow alleyways of the covered market. Yes, I could still make out the huge murals and statues of Saddam Hussein on the main streets.
And yes, the market's porters still almost tear your ankles without warning as they carry goods from one end of the market to the other.
And then I looked a bit closer: chocolate of every description in bulk, crate upon crate of soft drinks; Fanta, Pepsi. And what is this? Diet Coke? Grooming products - hair gel for goodness sake. I asked about the prices.
I was stunned - 10p for an imported can of cola. This was easily affordable for most middle class Iraqis.
The city has boomed since the last time I was here 18 months ago. You can get just about everything now - if you have the money.
It is a far cry from the Baghdad I knew at the height of international sanctions - where the government here was almost completely isolated from the rest of the world.
Whilst the world looked elsewhere - concerned with other crises, Iraq has used the time out of the headlines to shed its image as THE regional pariah.
There are trade fairs virtually every week at the major hotels. New agreements with its Arab neighbours who are now exporting huge amounts of goods to Iraq.
The authorities here are hoping that their attempts to build alliances in the Arab world will pay real political dividends. And it is hoping the payoff will come now.
The minute I arrived back in Baghdad, friends of mine wasted no time in seeking out my opinion.
Since 11 September hardly any foreign correspondents have been allowed into the country, such is the desire of the government here to keep a low profile.
And with good reason. The increasingly serious comments by senior officials in the American administration - warning of military action against Iraq if it does not allow UN Weapons Inspectors back into the country - have been on everyone's mind.
But it is been the warnings of what Secretary of State Colin Powell has described as "regime change" that has led to the greatest fears here.
I ran into one of my friends this week - I'll call him Bilal. "Bilal, how afraid of US military action are ordinary people?" I asked.
"They are afraid," he replied. "Ordinary Iraqis can only carry on with their lives. There's nothing they can do about the situation. We just sit and wait for the future."
This is not a city where any sense of fear or preparation on the part of the authorities is evident. You don't see troops and equipment moving through the city - or anti-aircraft units re-deploying.
A change in mood
But there is something in the atmosphere, the mood of the place is different.
And it is the reason why the official newspapers have their eyes on the turmoil between Israel and the Palestinians.
Every day, numerous headlines and column inches are given to what is referred to here as the "massacre of Arab Palestinians".
The state papers, with increasing shrillness, call on the Arab world to sever all ties to "the Zionist Entity" - the term used to refer to Israel.
And the editorials constantly stress that Israel's actions against the Palestinians are not only wholeheartedly supported by the United States - but are co-ordinated by Washington.
I have been to Baghdad during other crises - when this city and country faced the threat of British and American military action.
And at such times, driving through this city that I have come to know, I have wondered what would remain of the familiar and often beautiful features of this low-built capital on the banks of the Tigris River.
But 11 September changed the world. When one listens to what is being said in Washington, one can't help but feel that this year could be a decisive one for Iraq - and its emotionally exhausted people.
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