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Iraq: Baghdad Wears The Face Of Normality As Killings, Crime Continue

In the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, women and children are back on the streets, along with the patrols of Iraqi policemen. But appearances can be deceiving. American troops and Iraqi civilians are being killed almost every day. The UN is reducing its presence after two bombings killed more than 20 people, including its top envoy in the country. Other humanitarian agencies are following suit.

Baghdad, 9 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Baghdad looks better than it did in May and June.

The city is cleaner. Military equipment destroyed during the war has largely been taken away. Iraqi police officers are on patrol, and U.S. troops are much less visible. Women and children can even be seen walking the streets.

However, a feeling of danger is in the air. Concrete blocks and barbed wire surround hotels. Political parties, religious organizations, and mosques are taking similar security precautions. People armed with machine guns guard banks and government offices.

At least eight people were killed and 30 injured in northeast Baghdad today when a car loaded with explosives was detonated at a police station. Meanwhile, in another part of the city, a Spanish diplomat was shot dead while leaving his home.

Twenty-five-year-old Um Zahara lives in Mansur, an upper-class district of Baghdad. She says the capital wears only the face of normality. She says she feels much less secure today than she did in May. She says life and death have become just a matter of good or bad luck.

"Five months ago, [anti-American forces] were targeting only the Americans, at the places were [U.S. troops] were located. Now, we feel danger in every place. We feel danger in the streets. We don't feel secure in our own houses. I mean, there are explosions in the markets. They are hitting the Americans, but people who are near them are injured [or killed]. Now, it's more unsafe than before," Zahara said.

Indeed, five of those killed in today's bomb blast at a Baghdad police station are reported to be civilians.

Zahara says women have returned to the streets only because they cannot sit at home forever.

"You need to buy clothes for your kids. You need to take them to school and take them back," she says. "You cannot keep yourself and your children jailed at home."

The Mansur neighborhood looks peaceful and quiet today, but several days ago Iraqi police clashed here with angry demonstrators demanding jobs.

Riad is the owner of a small antique shop that trades in carpets, silverware, and jewelry. He says his shop has never been robbed but that he keeps a Kalashnikov machine gun at the ready under the counter.

Riad says security is slowly getting better in Baghdad but says he has the feeling that the war is always just a few meters away from his shop.

"We hear the news that the bomb [went off] in this street. They are trying to kill American soldiers on that street, and we know those streets well, and it's not very far away from us," Riad said.

More than 90 U.S. soldiers have been killed by hostile fire in Iraq -- many of them in Baghdad -- since the declared end of major combat operations on 1 May.

Riad pays tribute to the Iraqi police force for the improved security. Iraqi policemen are very visible in the city. Some officers patrol the city's streets; others try in vain to direct the capital's horrendous traffic. Traffic lights are not functioning properly because of electricity cuts, and drivers simply ignore traffic laws.

Traffic jams are a big problem for this city of more than 5 million. In rush hour, it can take several hours to get from one part of Baghdad to another.

Riad also praises the police for fighting crime -- gangs are abundant in the city -- and for checking cars for weapons. Every 10th car in Baghdad has no number plates. People say these cars were recently imported and that there is no agency to issue plates and register new cars. Whatever the reason, it makes life easier for criminals and the country's armed resistance.

Waeel is a self-employed man in his 30s. He is also happy that Iraqi police are back on the streets and says he feels more secure today than he did several months ago.

On the outside, Waeel says, Baghdad has become more Iraqi. But he says he has the feeling that he has lost his country.

"I feel that they -- strangers, foreigners -- have entered this country. I feel that my country will be taken over by foreigners and that it is divided into 100 pieces," Waeel said.

He says he hates the U.S. troops and will never feel truly safe until they leave Iraq.

Another middle-aged man named Akeel says security in the capital has increased and that people forget how insecure they were during Saddam Hussein's regime.

"I had a feeling that at any time, some [of Hussein's] security men could come to my place, arrest or search me for nothing," Akeel says. "I feel more secure now."

And he blames Hussein for the crime and lawlessness that exist today. "Saddam let out the criminals from the prisons, and that is the reason we don't have security now."

However, he says the U.S. should do more to restore law and order in the capital. Akeel says the U.S. has been too slow in this task and that people are angry.

"I want a peaceful life," Akeel says, "but even my patience is running out."