Baghdad’s Shurja market is open for business. The capital’s central commercial district, which earlier this year was virtually shut down by repeated car bombings and sniper fire, is now thronging with residents doing last-minute shopping before this week’s Eid holiday.
Six months after the “surge” of US troops finished deploying into Baghdad, Iraq’s capital is breathing again.
Shia militias still hold sway over large areas of the city, and around a half a dozen people are still reported killed every day in shootings, bombings and mortar barrages. But even if the return to normal life is only a temporary respite, Baghdadis say they are enjoying the moment.
Residents who once hunkered down in their homes and adopted false identities to shield themselves from sectarian death squads now venture out to work, shop, or simply visit restaurants and parks.
The US military says violence has fallen by 60 per cent nationwide over the past six months, an impression that is borne out by anecdotal evidence from Iraqis. The Iraqi Red Crescent also reports that the country’s number of internally displaced fell for the first time in October, when 110,000 people returned to their homes.
The second story concerns the wasteful spending at the UN, and American efforts to stop it:
Officials of United Nations member states met throughout the weekend to try to avert a budget crisis over what the Bush administration has branded the largest proposed increase in spending in the organisation's 62-year history.
The UN's budget committee had set a deadline of this Wednesday to approve a request from Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, for $4.2bn (£2bn, €2.9bn) to cover the UN's regular expenditure over the next two years.
But with the US digging in its heels over likely additional expenditure that it says could boost this total by a further $1bn, the UN faced the prospect of entering 2008 without a budget.
When Mr Ban presented his first budget as secretary-general on October 25, he said the amount was "not much, considering the demands upon us". Requesting $23m - or half a percentage point - increase for 2008-2009, he said: "Never has the world so needed a strong United Nations, yet never have our resources been stretched so thin." The same day, however, UN officials acknowledged that cost adjustments had already boosted the bottom line to $4.4bn, while additional items not accounted for would carry the total to more than $4.6bn.
In a closed-door meeting of member states last week, Mark Wallace, US deputy ambassador to the UN, said spending could be as high as $5.2bn - a 25 per cent rise - in view of further demands for funding expected in the coming year. "With the largest budget increase in history," he said, "the credibility of the UN is at stake."
Part of the US complaint is that three out of every four dollars of the regular budget go on the salaries of 10,000 staff and other related costs. "The . . . increase does not go directly to humanitarian or development aid but rather to increasing the size of the UN secretariat bureaucracy," Mr Wallace said.