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IRAQ: Burnishing Baghdad

July 1, 2008 |  4:31 pm

Since the 2003 invasion, piles of rubble and filth have become the new icons of Baghdad.

Broken sidewalks, gaping potholes, hulking neighborhood ramparts, concertina wire and other impediments have made movement through the city, either by car or on foot, slow, hazardous and demoralizing.

At last there are signs of change. This year, the Baghdad Municipality received $1 billion through the national budget for public works. Half of it is going to sidewalk and street repairs.

The city has hired thousands of independent contractors to complete small-scale projects that are beginning to dot the shattered cityscape.

With the level of violence down, pallets of paving stones lined up on some of Baghdad’s major streets have become more a more common sight than burned-out cars.

Monuments are being repaired and landscapers are restoring vegetation to traffic medians.

Much of the work is done by hand.

Last week a crew on the Karada district’s main thoroughfare toiled through a 100-degree day, hauling sand on their shoulders, tamping the bedding with their feet and pounding pavers into place one by one with rubber mallets.

Elsewhere in Karada, a giant anteater-like machine scraped away old asphalt to prepare for a new road surface. Work is often interrupted for maintenance of the aging machine.

Curbstones that had lain topsy-turvy since the invasion five years ago are being replaced across the city.

Iraqis build their curbs with pre-cast concrete blocks, rather than pouring cement them as Americans do.

The blocks, weighing more than 200 pounds apiece, are set in place, leveled and cemented together, all by hand.

While offering the earliest signs of momentum in civic life, the construction projects also provide badly needed jobs.

Mahoud Mahdi, the foreman of a crew laying three miles of curb  in Baghdad’s battered downtown business district,  has two sons working for him.

He said he paid for their military deferrments, their schools and their weddings and now they’re paying him back.

Ultimately, he said with a smile, all of the money will go to them anyway.

Skeptics say the beautification effort is superficial and wasteful. Eventually, they say, all the work will have to be torn out when the city finally comes to grips with the almost complete breakdown of its heavy systems for water and electricity.

Tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars must be spent to dig up and replace most of the city’s sewer system and rebuild the electrical grid. And it won’t be done by hand labor.

Perhaps a hundred miles of temporary concrete blast walls will have to be hauled away.

The still-standing hulks of buildings disabled by bombs or canon fire will have to be demolished and rebuilt.

Even with improving security, the task will take years.

But for now, a few splashes of color and smooth surfaces are offering some relief for tired eyes and feet.

— Doug Smith in Baghdad

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East. You can subscribe by registering at the website here.

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