Bloodied Iraqi capital faces struggle to rebuild

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BAGHDAD, Nov 15 (Reuters) Baghdad, the epicentre of Iraq's sectarian bloodshed, is starting to rebuild its shattered infrastructure, but political feuds and the threat of renewed attacks could reverse progress, officials said.

''Baghdad, God willing, will emerge after suffering from despotism, explosions and car bombs,'' Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih told a conference on rebuilding the Baghdad region yesterday.

While the state of basic services like water, electricity, and sewerage has been dismal across Iraq since the US-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003, conditions in the capital Baghdad have been particularly grim.

This August, residents of the Baghdad region had an average of 9.2 hours of electricity a day, the second lowest in Iraq.

Insufficient power and sabotage also contributed to a major water shortage in recent months.

At the same time, the ethnically and religiously mixed city, once a centre of culture and learning in the Arab world, has seen the worst violence in the nation.

From early May to late July this year, the province saw close to 60 attacks a day, more than any other part of Iraq, according to the U.S. government.

Some progress on reconstruction has been made, Baghdad officials told the conference, pointing to the construction of schools and health centres, either completed or under way.

Car bombs and explosions have dropped off in recent months, prompting Iraqis exhausted by more than four years of war to cautiously venture out to shops and parks.

Salih, a Kurd, and a host of senior officials at the conference in the heavily fortified Green Zone, saw serious threats to the city's public works, security and sectarian ties.

A SECURE BAGHDAD? A few hours before the conference began, a roadside bomb just outside the Green Zone shook the hotel where the meeting was being held. Police said at least two people were killed.

''We need to remind ourselves that this fight is not over,'' US Ambassador Ryan Crocker told the conference.

Much of the violence that has wracked Baghdad has come in clashes between the city's Sunni minority and Shi'ite majority.

Besides the toll the war has taken on Baghdad's buildings and bridges, Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi warned of destruction to Iraq's social fabric. ''This will remain the principal obstacle to security and stability,'' he said.

The Baghdad government is hoping to expand the availability of drinking water and sewerage services over the next few years, in addition to paving roads, building bypasses and bridges.

They will need billions of dollars to make it happen. This year, Iraq has received greater revenues in step with record oil prices.

Even so, officials say other nations cannot back away from Iraq when so much remains to be done.

''Our message to the world is that Iraq is in need of your continuous support ... so Baghdad will be the capital of a secure Iraq,'' said Salih.

REUTERS JT ND-905

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