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Iraqi Postal Service Slowly Getting Back to Normal - 2004-01-16

Nine months after major combat operations in Iraq came to an end, most Iraqis still complain bitterly about the lack of security, electricity, jobs and proper infrastructure, to name but a few of the frustrations of life in the country. But, there has been some rare upbeat news over the past week. New currency notes are now in full circulation in hopes of building confidence in the economy. And Iraq postal system is slowly getting back up and running.

Juma'a Abid Ali, the assistant manager of the al-Dawoudi post office in Baghdad, says they are open for business six days a week, 12 hours a day.

The procedure is the same as before the war, he explains. Customers bring in their letters and parcels. These are then sent to the central post office for sorting by destination, before being loaded onto vehicles to be sent out.

He says the post office is not running anywhere near full capacity. Before the war it used to handle between 400 and 500 letters a day, while it now gets only a small fraction of that. He thinks that is mainly because many people don't know the post office is in operation.

Juma'a Abid Ali points out that the al-Dawoudi post office stayed open throughout the war. He says lots of people used to come then, mainly to make international phone calls. People still come in for that, sometimes even American soldiers, who want to call home.

He notes that the post office still lacks some basic new equipment, and with no commercial flights out of the country, mail travels slowly by road. While many of the procedures are the same as before the war, some things have changed. Juma'a Abid Ali says one important change has been an increase in salaries for postal workers.

"Before," he says, "I used to earn the equivalent of about $2.50 a month. Now, I get about $150 a month." Of course, he adds, prices have risen sharply since the war and the salary is not good, but it's better than before.

Another change has been the lack of censorship. Under Saddam Hussein's regime, the secret police used to check and monitor mail coming into and out of the central post office. That is no longer the case.

And, within the past week, Iraq's Governing Council has issued new postage stamps and that too is a good thing, says Juma'a Abid Ali.

He says stamps used to carry portraits of Saddam Hussein. Now, those are gone. People said, 'Saddam's time is finished, it's over. We need new stamps.'

The new stamps range in denominations from 50 Iraqi dinars, or about four U.S. cents, to 1,000 dinars, or about 75 cents, and are to have scenes of Iraqi monuments, landscapes and history. The 100-dinar stamp, for example, shows a man in traditional Arab robes driving a horse-drawn carriage carrying a man in a suit.

After the war, most of the post office buildings and vehicles were looted, and even now, only about half of the country's post offices are said to be up and running. But Iraq's communications minister says there is increasingly regular service within Iraq and to points overseas, via Kuwait and Jordan. Of course, no one is sure how long their letter or parcel may take to arrive at its destination.

So, what do Iraqis think of the new postage stamps?

Pharmacist Vian Zernig takes a close look at the 100-dinar stamp.

Vian Zernig: Who is that?

Sonja Pace: It's just a man in a horse and carriage, but no picture of Saddam. Do you like that?

Vian Zernig: Of course, I hate Saddam from the deep of my heart; he hurt us very much.

Sonja Pace: Why do you think it's important to have stamps with no picture of Saddam?

Vian Zernig: We don't want Saddam anymore. No picture. No, no.

Not everyone feels so strongly. But, across the street, merchant Imad Abdel Karim also thinks the new stamps are important. "We've had enough of Saddam's pictures," he says, "enough of Saddam's statues. It's been 35 years. It's enough for us."

Imad Abdel Karim looks at the stamp with the horse and carriage, and says he would prefer something more modern, mobile phones maybe, to portray a modern Iraq.