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Baghdad bustles with activity amid traffic jams

Baghdad, April 15 (Reuters): Amid fraying tempers and honking horns, traffic jams on Baghdad’s streets today were a sure sign, if not a welcome one, that Iraqis in the city of five million were starting to resume their everyday lives.

A row of barber-shops lifted their shutters, the city’s red double-decker buses started plying routes that were virtually empty of vehicles a few days ago and several street-side cafes filled up with customers.

But it was not an everyday scene, even for Iraq’s capital which has had little let-up from war in the past two decades.

US troops stood at roadblocks, slowing the flow of cars already disrupted more than the pre-war norm by traffic lights that don’t work. Most shops were still closed because the city has no power. And in a country with huge oil reserves, many fuel stations still have nothing to sell.

As the US and Britain wind down their 27-day military campaign, order is only gradually returning to the Iraqi capital. US forces have appealed to police, medical workers and other civil servants to help get critical services up and running.

“Just look at this! This is not normal,” said Mohammad Ahmed from behind the wheel as he waited in a line of cars bump- to-bumper trying to get his 70-year-old neighbour to hospital.

In the downtown area, several ministry buildings still smouldered from the intense US bombing of the city. Others stood empty, stripped bare by looters who rampaged through the city after the collapse of the Iraqi government a week earlier.

A welcome new arrival to the streets was a convoy of three police cars and a bus filled with officers, back in uniforms they had abandoned as US troops entered the city fearing they would be mistaken for combatants.

The force of about 30 officers headed for a complex of hospitals and other medical facilities, which had been guarded solely by US troops.

“I am pleased that we can serve the people,” said police officer Ghassan Faraj, as his commander divided the force into teams of a six to take up positions around the complex, parts of which had been looted a few days before.

Asked why he wasn’t wearing a pistol although a handful of colleagues had them, he smiled and said: “We are moving gradually.”

Further up the road, Ahmed Abbas was walking down the road with an armful of Iraqi dinars from a nearby bank that had just been robbed.

But this wasn’t theft. A unit of 10 US Marines had got to the bank shortly after it was robbed and asked the police officer to get his uniform from home so he could carry the remaining cash to another bank. Lieutenant Justin Engelhardt said the unit wanted Abbas to carry the money lest Iraqis think his force was looting.

There were few other signs of looting, or of the armed militia groups which prowled many streets a few days earlier.

But a soldier at one US checkpoint said he had confiscated an assault rifle from one man they stopped and the odd crackle of gunfire still resounded across the city. “The situation is getting better every day,” said 46-year-old Tariq Alani, putting on a brave face as he sold chocolates and other items from the back of his car. He had salvaged them from his shop which was destroyed in the fighting.

In Karada, near central Baghdad, the streets were bustling with activity. Shoppers haggled with street vendors selling vegetables, and several grocery shops had opened their doors. Carcasses hung up at a local butchers.

But at bakeries, where Iraqis usually expect to get their loaves with little wait, small queues of customers lined up. And 15-year-old Peter George had problems getting water.

“The pump doesn’t work because there is no power,” he said as he filled up a bucket from a tap at street level. The bucket was hoisted up to his family’s third-floor flat by a rope.

US forces have begun distributing leaflets in Baghdad urging Iraqis to stay at home at night to try to prevent crime and any remaining fighting on the streets, US officials said today. “Please avoid leaving your homes during the night hours after evening (Muslim) prayers and before the call to morning prayers,” said the message printed in Arabic and English being handed out by US psychological operations teams, or “psyops”.

“During this time, terrorist forces associated with the former regime of Saddam Hussein, as well as various criminal elements, are known to move through the area and engage in hostile acts,” it said.

The leaflet advised people to approach US and British checkpoints cautiously and to avoid carrying anything that might be mistaken for a weapon.

It also urged firefighters, medical staff and other civil servants in key services to appear at the Civil Military Operations Centre at the Palestine Hotel in central Baghdad to help restore public utilities.

The US forces have been seeking to return order to the streets of Baghdad, where looters rampaged after the collapse of the Iraqi government.

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