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BAGHDAD, Iraq — On the streets of Baghdad in the days leading up to the U.S. assault, ordinary Iraqis erected makeshift fortifications to repel “the invaders.”

Except in a few instances, it was mostly for show. Their audience was an oppressive government whose idea of community outreach amounted to the barrel of a gun.

“It was a nightmare on our chest,” said Najim Aldeen, owner of a three-chair barbershop on Wathba Street in the Old City.

“This is why we did not carry weapons against the Americans. They were coming here to get rid of the Saddam regime.”

But it would be a gross mistake to assume the Iraqi leader’s apparatus has atrophied to the point of ineffectiveness. Saddam Hussein may have left the stage, but his remaining supporters are waiting in the wings somewhere.

“The most acute problem, in my view, is that the Baath regime is still alive. It’s not dead,” said Hoshyar Zebari, a chief adviser for the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

“They may have lost their power over Baghdad, over Iraq, but really it is still active, still working, still organized, still armed.”

To a degree, it’s a view shared by the U.S. military, from the grunts on the ground on up to Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, commander of the coalition’s joint task force in Iraq.

It is against this backdrop, that Iraq’s budding legion of future leaders are assembling in Baghdad to begin the process of forming an interim government.

This month or next, they expect to convene a transitional national assembly to address some of the country’s most urgent problems.

The list of pressing issues is staggering: writing a constitution; establishing a presidency, assembly and judiciary; reforming the currency; taking a census; rebuilding the oil industry; and dealing with the country’s debt, reconstruction and U.N. sanctions.

When Zebari finished rattling off some of the areas of immediate concern, he took a deep breath and said, “It’s a huge, long list.”

That’s only a start. Food, water, electricity and sanitation are major issues as well. Many people, from police and teachers to health care workers and pensioners, haven’t been paid in months. Even the stoplights don’t work, making a drive in the city anything but a walk in the park.

And then there is civil order, or disorder, depending on one’s point of view.

Remarkably, as broken and as dangerous as Baghdad is, the situation could be a whole lot worse, which is a credit to the overstretched coalition force and, especially, to the average Iraqi who wants a better and freer life.

“I can speak freely,” Aldeen said through an interpreter as he clipped the hair of a 4-year-old boy. “Nobody is going to stop me or take me away to prison.”

A few blocks away from the Al-Fairooz Barbershop for Men, where a haircut costs less than a buck, Pvt. Marc Telusma of the 3rd Infantry Division looked out across Al-Rashid, one of the oldest streets in Baghdad.

The scene around him and other members of 2nd Platoon, Company B, 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, looked like hell. The late-morning temperature was rising, trash piles were smoldering and the brick buildings all around the soldiers were charred and shattered. Telusma and his buddies sleep on the floor of the looted Rafidain Center Bank.

“Right now, we are just trying to hold the town down,” said the 20-year-old from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

“We’re the only enforcers they have here. There is hope, but it will take time.”

Baghdad may be the key, as Zebari likes to say, but patience is the byword.

“We have waited for such a long time, but our patience is coming to an end,” Aldeen said. “We can be patient for a while more, but not for a long time.”

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