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Last Updated: Saturday, 31 May, 2003, 21:28 GMT 22:28 UK
Hardship and nostalgia in Iraq
By Jeremy Bowen
BBC correspondent in Baghdad

A painting of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is seen stained with red paint at a computer research institute in Baghdad
Some people look back to the era of Saddam Hussein with nostalgia
I closed my eyes against the hot, hard wind. They stung from the sand it was carrying in from the desert.

It was half way through the evening. Abu Nuwass Street, which runs along one bank of the River Tigris in the centre of Baghdad, was deserted, except for a pack of hungry-looking dogs.

Pieces of rubbish caught by the wind as it swirled around the buildings shot 20 feet into the air, turning cartwheels and somersaults.

I hurried along to the gap in the razor wire around my hotel, nodded to the American soldiers who guard it and went inside.

There was a time when Baghdad was a normal city. Well, normal by the standards of an Arab dictatorship that seemed to have enough oil to make its dreams come true.

Saddam's gone and everything's different
Iraqi citizen

To come here, you bought a ticket and stepped aboard an airliner. At Saddam International Airport taxis waited to take you to your hotel.

Traffic was regulated by a system of red, amber and green lights and policemen who blew whistles and waved their arms.

The dictatorship was always close by. But it was easy, as a foreigner, to ignore it. The streets in the centre of town were clean. Cars were new. The roads were smooth. People were friendly.

People still are friendly in Baghdad. That is about the only thing that has not changed since I first came here 13 years ago.

In our modern world, the way you get to a city is a good indicator of where it is on the foreign correspondent's scale of normality.

Dangers abound

When it is no longer possible to buy a ticket for an aeroplane, and take a taxi to a hotel, then a city is sliding into the ranks of the urban dead.

After the 1991 war, when flights stopped, we used to drive in from Jordan, a long journey across the desert - not as bad as it sounds because Saddam Hussein replaced the old camel roads with a six-lane highway.

Now that is considered too dangerous because of bandits, so we come in from Kuwait, along the Americans' main supply route.

Sorry if this sounds selfish or even a little shallow, but how you get there is a good measurement. If the usual ways break down it means that local people are no longer able to have happy and productive lives.

It has even rained this week, great fat drops full of sand, the equivalent of summer snow in Britain.

"Saddam's gone and everything's different," an Iraqi I know here grumbled.

A bizarre Saddam Hussein nostalgia has gripped some people. What they say is that if you did not want to threaten the regime, it would leave you alone. In return it delivered safe streets.

Petty thieves, one man explained to me, were sent to prison where they were beaten and taught a lesson.

Murderers and rapists were shot. One of Saddam Hussein's last acts was to empty the prisons. Out poured the thieves, and the murderers and rapists who had not been executed yet.

The popular belief here is that they are behind the crime and looting.

Gun controversy

Abu Nawass street is lined with fish restaurants, that sell Mazgouf, barbecued fish from the Tigris.

They are deserted because in the evening men go home, take out their guns and spend the night guarding their families.

People cannot understand why the Americans are confiscating guns when the city is not safe.

They plan to allow pistols and shotguns for personal protection, but not Kalashnikov assault rifles, most people's favourite, because they mean business.

They are in such demand that the price has gone up from $10 to $50.

Out and out looting is now unusual, partly because the old regime's rich pickings have long gone - and partly because the Americans and the British are much better organised.

It is still early days, but they are making progress in imposing law and order, without which nothing else will get better. But they were badly caught out by the way everything collapsed here.

They were hoping to cut off the head of the regime and to inherit a functioning administration. Instead, the invasion created a void, which they are desperately trying to fill.

The Americans are also deploying thousands of troops to build huge bases in the desert between Baghdad and Kuwait.

New ally?

The fact that Saddam Hussein has been removed is no longer enough for most Iraqis. They do not like being occupied, especially when the occupation has not made their lives better.

The invaders have bitten off something really big here. They have created a turning point in the Middle East that will determine the way it goes in the next generation.

They say they can create a new ally, a democratic Iraq that will spread Western ideas of freedom - in a region where millions think that that the west stands for an assault on their religion and culture.

America and Britain, and whoever else they can persuade to help out, will need deep pockets, tenacity, and luck.


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