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Improved US image here is sign of strong desire among Algerians to get their country working again

A JOKE is going around Algiers that is giving people here a much-needed laugh.

According to the story, former Algerian President Chadli Benjedid, who resigned earlier this month under pressure from the military for his handling of the country's democratization process, is still in office when the following conversation with President Bush takes place.

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"Mr. President," says Mr. Bush, "give me the Algerian desert and in 10 years I'll turn it into California."

"Very well, Mr. President," replies Mr. Benjedid. "You give me California - and in one year I'll turn it into the Algerian desert."

The joke paints with biting sarcasm average Algerians' low esteem for a 30-year-old regime - of which Benjedid was only the latest representative - which they hold responsible for the waste and destruction of the country's natural wealth.

But it also suggests the increasingly positive image the United States has here. It is a striking shift from the mood during last year's Gulf war, when the streets of Algiers were full of anti-US protesters, and then-Foreign Minister Sid Ahmed Ghozali was warning that President Bush's "new world order" promised instead "disorder" and danger for the developing world.

The more positive tone toward the US is in part a swinging back of the pendulum. "Don't be misled by the dusty graffiti singing for Saddam," says Abdelkarim, a hardware merchant in central Algiers. "Algerians want their country working again, and they hope the Americans will help that happen."

These days Algerians' own preoccupations are much closer than Baghdad, and now as prime minister, Mr. Ghozali has more imminent problems than a theoretical world order.

Algeria's decade-long encounter with Islamic fundamentalism appeared on the verge of turning the country into a strict Islamic republic after the December election victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). That prospect led to an abrupt cancellation of the electoral process and appointment of an Army-backed council of state to fill in for the resigned Benjedid.

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The new government has said that, after the country's stability, its priority will be to provide a quick economic stimulus to employ a quarter of the jobless - and thus deny the fundamentalists a pillar of their support.

Algeria's turmoil has left the country more than usually sensitive to international reaction to its affairs. And here, too, the US has won points. After initially declaring that Algeria's new power arrangement was in line with the Constitution, the US State Department backtracked later last week and said it simply would not become involved in Algeria's internal affairs.

Government officials here have praised that position as "prudent" and "wise" in contrast to other reactions - most notably from Iran and France - which are considered unacceptable interference. Iranian leaders, who have never hidden their desire to spread the Islamic revolution and who are suspected of supplying substantial material support to the FIS, had publicly condemned Algeria's action as undemocratic. French President Francois Mitterrand called the actions "abnormal" and said Algeria "must" return

to the electoral process - an admonition that infuriated Algerians, coming from the former colonial power.

As Algeria works on its economic problems, the country is opening the door to new partners. And that, too, is part of the improved US image here. "We want the Americans to come help us develop our resources," says Mohamed Rachid, a technician with Sonatrach, Algeria's national oil and gas consortium. "They have the know-how, and ... they know the meaning of 50-50."

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