BOUAKE, Ivory Coast (Reuters) - Posting an airmail letter with football-themed stamps at a post office in northern Ivory Coast, Nogo Dissea feels life may be looking up.
Normality is gradually returning to the rebel-held north of the top cocoa producer a year after a power-sharing deal brought hopes of lasting peace to a country split by a 2002/2003 war.
But delays in disarming rebel and government troops are likely to force another postponement of elections due by June.
"This is the first time I've sent post. I hope it'll get there," Dissea said, clutching a letter to the French family he worked for until they fled in 2002, when the north fell to rebels during the civil war, leaving it without state services.
The post office in the rebel capital Bouake reopened late last year after a five-year shutdown. Rows of rented post boxes are crammed with dusty envelopes awaiting collection, and staff sift sacks of undelivered mail dating back to the war period -- including bills from a mobile phone company long since wound up.
Thousands of teachers and medical workers who fled during the fighting have returned to schools and hospitals across the north. Lectures have resumed at Bouake's nursing college, which served as the New Forces rebels' administrative headquarters.
"People started coming back when things got better and now we're building," said builder Abou Dramane Diarra, 39, toiling on a row of half-finished villas. One Bouake estate agent even said the returnees have started a mini property boom.
Bouake's Treasury office, located above a betting shop, is once again dishing out monthly stipends to pensioners. Cash machines and fast broadband Internet access are up and running.
A state commission says nearly three quarters of the 24,437 civil servants who fled have returned, lured by $2,000 bonuses to assuage safety fears in a zone without state security.
Under the breakthrough peace deal a year ago, the rebels and government agreed on reunification and holding elections.
President Laurent Gbagbo named rebel leader Guillaume Soro as prime minister and since then some leaders have bragged the country is already reunited.
In truth the state has little clout in the north, despite a visit by Gbagbo in January.
Rebels who control over half the country still cruise the streets in pick-ups emblazoned with snakes and leopards.
"The country is still divided. The rebels have their guns, and we don't believe in these elections any more," said Desire Dali, an IT technician in the southern economic capital Abidjan.
State security forces will redeploy in the north only after rebel and government soldiers are disarmed and form a new army.
In the meantime, troops from both sides have formed "mixed brigades" to patrol the former front line where U.N. peacekeepers dismantled a buffer zone six months ago.
"There needs to be disarmament," said Konin Aka. As prefect of Bouake, he represents the president in the city, but he said his title meant little while the New Forces still oversaw security, policing and collection of taxes from local traders.
"We're seeing a kind of co-management of the administration. We're on one side and they are on the other," he said, grieved that the New Forces hold public meetings without consulting him.
Fears of renewed fighting eased after the March 2007 peace deal, but not long afterwards unidentified attackers fired rockets at Soro's plane as it landed at Bouake airport, killing four. The rebel-turned-premier survived the attack.
The New Forces said dissident rebels attacked one of their night patrols in December. But residents heard nothing and U.N. peacekeepers denounced summary executions in Bouake, fuelling popular suspicions of a settling of scores in the rebel ranks.
The reopening of trade routes through northern Ivory Coast to landlocked Mali and Burkina Faso, the region's top cotton growers, has boosted traffic at Ivory Coast's port of Abidjan.
A post-war programme agreed with the International Monetary Fund foresees economic growth doubling to 3 percent this year, helped by the opening of new gold mines near the old conflict frontline, and increased offshore oil production.
But officials tasked with rebuilding state administration in the north face crippling logistical and financial hurdles.
Much of Bouake's public infrastructure was looted or destroyed during the war, causing an estimated $450 billion CFA francs ($1 billion) damage.
Prefect Aka shares the house where he lives and works with two colleagues. Other officials make do with hotel rooms down town for living and office space -- but they may face eviction. At least one hotelier said the government has not paid for their rooms.
Utility companies are also tightening the screws after supplying northern customers with free water and electricity since the war as a humanitarian gesture.
But locals have protested, violently on one occasion, saying there are no jobs to enable them to pay the bills. After muddling through the last five years, many residents can ill afford the services coming back to the north.
Souleymane Tchemassa Kone, deputy headmaster at a Bouake secondary school, hopes the new authorities will at least employ some of the volunteers who kept schools open through the war in return for meager contributions from the children's parents.
"Without volunteers there wouldn't even have been school."
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Editing by Alistair Thomson and Myra MacDonald