Iraqis thirst for water and power

Lack of basic services is prompting growing protest aimed at Iraqi officials.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

This summer, the third since the fall of Baghdad, has been the worst yet when it comes to basic services. Interruptions to electricity and water supplies - caused by both decay and sabotage - are driving up the frustrations of millions of Iraqis.

While last summer public anger was directed at the US government, today it's as likely to be aimed directly at Iraq's interim government and officials.

Last Sunday in the Shiite town of Samawa 150 miles south of Baghdad, protests over joblessness and limited electricity and water supplies turned into a riot outside the governor's office in which about 1,000 residents overturned and burned a police van. The riot ended when police opened fire, killing one.

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In a sign of how politically sensitive the matter has become, the rioting saw Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari rush a delegation of representatives to Samawa the next day. At a hastily convened provincial council meeting in their presence, Gov. Muhammed al-Hassani was then sacked.

And here in Baghdad, the militant Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has called for Friday protests against the lack of power and water. This is part of an ongoing campaign to shore up his power base among the urban poor by targeting the failures of his more moderate political opponents, who are now in power.

In a rare statement calling for the protests, Mr. Sadr blamed "the occupier and the people who have traded on their religion and sold their people" for Iraq's problems, an apparent reference to the mainstream Shiite political parties that run the government.

Meanwhile, Baghdad has a new mayor, Hussein al-Tahhan, who replaced Alaa al-Tamimi after he was run out of office by Shiite militiamen. Mr. Tahhan told Reuters that, "I don't think a politician should be a mayor, it should be someone who can spend all of his time in the service of the people," criticizing Mr. Tamimi for not paying enough attention to Baghdad's already crippled public services.

Iraq's electricity problems - which in turn lead to frequent pump shutdowns that deprive many neighborhoods of water, and frequently leave pools of sewage decaying in the streets - are a combination of a run-down system, war-time damage, and ongoing insurgent sabotage.

$20 billion for electricity

The US is in the process of spending about $19 billion on long-term water and electricity projects, but about a quarter of this money has been diverted to security because of the raging insurgency, US officials sau. Even when electricity generation is improved at the power plant, transformers and cables are easy insurgent targets, with the net result that less power gets to Iraqi homes.

"Security increases costs by 10 to 25 percent, so we're not getting our value for money. Security was factored in at a rate of 9 percent - we didn't know it would be this much," Brig. Gen. Bill McCoy told Reuters during a tour this week of projects north of Baghdad. "We've had to downsize in some areas. It took $3 billion out of water and $500 million out of electricity," he said.

Iraqi officials said last month that the country would need an estimated $20 billion over the next five years to restore full electric power capacity and keep power flowing to the entire country. Iraqi Electricity Minister Mohsen Shalash seemed confident that Iraq would be able to restore full power within two years and that daily demand - estimated by the US General Accounting Office to reach 8,500 megawatts this summer - will climb to 18,000 megawatts by 2010.

Coping with the heat

But Faten Abed wants reliable electricity and more water now.

Her hair is unwashed and she's dragging after another sleepless night in her two-room apartment that has been turned into an "oven" by summertime Baghdad's 115-degree temperatures.

"We turn on the television and all we see is the politicians saying 'I'm going to do this,' or 'I'm going to do that,' " she says. "We've stopped believing anything they have to say. I had hope before the election that things would be different, but the political parties are losing all of their credibility."

In some of Baghdad's toughest neighborhoods, like the Sunni-dominated Adhamiya, where gun battles and assassinations are common, even large generators, sometimes owned cooperatively by wealthier neighborhoods, have been targeted.

One Adhamiya resident, who asked not to be named, says his community sold their generators after a death threat from local insurgents.

Mrs. Abed says she's fortunate to get eight hours electricity of power a day in her cramped home in central Baghdad that she shares with her husband and five children. They live in a ground-floor apartment, so the rooftops where many escape to sleep aren't an option for them.

Instead, they have rolled up their carpet to sleep on the cooler tile floors, and take turns fanning each other. A cool shower is usually not an option, since the neighborhood's water is turned off for days at a time. "I don't want to give up hope completely - maybe the government will start to do something. But for now, we're hardly sleeping."

But at least someone is profiting from Baghdad's decaying infrastructure.

Haider al-Turki grins out from a grease-stained face and shouts to make himself heard over the roar of a portable generator. "I'm making a lot of money thanks to cheap Chinese generators and the terrorists,'' says the former auto mechanic who switched to fixing generators full-time two years ago. It's a skill he learned while a conscript in Saddam Hussein's army.

Sweeping his hand over the jumble of generators spilling from his small workshop onto the sidewalk he says, "I'm the only person I know who's benefiting from this situation."

Generating a profit

This summer, Mr. Turki says, he's repairing about 20 generators every day, up from about 10 a day last summer. He charges about $20 a pop. But even he says he hopes he'll be out of a job soon.

"I'd be pleased to going back to fixing cars some day - all of my customers are the lucky ones anyway,'' he says. "Most Iraqis can't afford a generator, and they're just trying to live through this."

Turki says he has a number of friends who have shut small businesses because of intermittent power, and worries that a weak economy will lead to an even less stable Iraq than the one now.

"We have two problems: the terrorists and the government that is stealing from us," he explains.

He gestures to a tangle of wires hanging from a utility pole outside his shop, which he said exploded about a month ago.

A repairman from the Ministry of Public Works showed up a few days later and then demanded bribes from all of the businessmen on the street to get electricity to the neighborhood up and running again.

"We wouldn't pay - we're fed up with this stuff. The Americans can't fix it and the government is just out for themselves. What did we vote for anyway?"

Material from wire services was used in this article.

Electricity and Oil

As demand for electricity in Iraq rises in the summer months, the country has continued to suffer chronic distribution problems, even as electricity production increases.

IRAQI ELECTRICITY PRODUCTION:

Prewar 2003: 95,000 megawatt hours/day

June 2005: 100,000 megawatt hours/day

Estimated summertime need: 204,000 megawatt hours/day

December 2005 target: 110,000 megawatt hours/day (revised down from 120,000 megawatt hours/day)

OIL PRODUCTION AND EXPORT

Prewar 2003

Production: 2.6 million barrels per day
Export: 2.1 million barrels per day

May 2005

Production:2 million barrels per day
Export: 1.4 million barrels per day

December 2005 targets:

Production: 2.8 million barrels per day
Export: 1.8 million barrels per day

Source: The US Government Accounting Office July 2005 Iraqi Reconstruction report

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