By Andy Mosher and Bassam Sebti
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 24, 2005
BAGHDAD, June 23 -- In the streets of Baghdad, people wondered Thursday what else could possibly go wrong.
In Karrada, a commercial district across the Tigris River from the city's fortified Green Zone, wreckage was still smoldering hours after four car bombs exploded shortly after dawn, killing 17 people and wounding 20. Water sprayed on the resulting fires commingled in pools with blood. On the north side of the city, in Shuala -- like Karrada, an area populated mostly by Shiite Muslims -- similar scenes played out in the wake of a triple car bombing that had killed 15 people the night before.
Around Baghdad, neighborhoods were celebrating the return of running water but still lamenting the three-day drought caused when insurgents ruptured a water line north of the city.
And with the temperature exceeding 100 degrees, as it has every day for weeks, people voiced anger at the prospect of spending their third summer since the U.S.-led invasion with only intermittent electricity. Those with generators will be able to power air conditioners and other appliances; the rest will simply bake.
"So many problems are happening in the city," said Mohammed Sarhan, 50, a grocer in the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Dora. "Where do I start -- water, electricity, security, unemployment or health?"
"This is not a life," Sarhan added. "This is hell."
A gathering of representatives from more than 80 countries and organizations in Brussels on Wednesday was marked by statements of support for Iraq and announcements of programs to assist the country's nearly five-month-old interim government. The conference had been billed in large part as that government's debut on the world stage and an opportunity for its leaders to lay out their plans to rebuild the country.
In Baghdad, however, the government's performance was repeatedly cited in interviews as one of the many disappointing aspects of a year that began with promise. Elections on Jan. 30 drew large numbers of voters to the polls despite the threat of insurgent violence. But formal installation of a government and formation of a committee to write Iraq's next constitution were delayed for months, and efforts to bring more Sunni Muslim Arabs into the process after they boycotted the elections continue to sputter.
"We sacrificed our souls and went out to vote. What did we get? Simply nothing," said Karima Sadoun, 56, as she stopped to buy vegetables at a shop in the eastern Baghdad district of Ghadir.
In another eastern neighborhood, Bashar Hanna, 30, said: "We need action, not speeches. . . . Iraqis now are like a car stuck in the mud. Whenever this car wants to get out of the mud, it sticks more in the crater it created."
While the on-again, off-again power supply is not new to Baghdad, it is no less maddening than in past summers, residents said. Statistics for May and June are not yet available, but the amount of electricity generated in the capital decreased steadily through February, March and April even as nationwide supplies rose, according to State Department figures. Baghdad's daily average of 854 megawatts in April was scarcely more than a third of the city's estimated prewar output of 2,500 megawatts a day.
Sarhan, the grocer, said the power shortages were affecting sales. "Not too many people come and buy from me, because they don't have electricity," he said. "They don't have a place to keep what they buy."
"The lack of electricity has destroyed our lives," said Waleed Najeeb, 48, who owns a supermarket in Dora. "It has affected us psychologically and practically. I don't sleep well, and because of that, the way I treat people has changed."
On top of that, the three-day water shortage "turned everything in Baghdad upside down," Najeeb said. "I would go home tired from work and have to stop at the nearest water pipe and bring some water to my family for drinking and washing."
Among Baghdad's many hardships, the lack of security surpasses all the rest, according to those interviewed. In the four weeks after the country's Shiite-led government was finally installed in late April, attacks carried out by the mostly Sunni insurgents killed more than 900 people across the country and sent fear through Baghdad's neighborhoods. After a brief lull in early June that coincided with the start of a security crackdown in and around Baghdad, the bombings resumed.
"What kind of generation are we raising under these conditions?" Najeeb asked. "There are no places to take my child to have some fun. I bought him a PlayStation set, and now he spends most of his time in the house without any other activities. Sitting home is better than going out and getting killed."
In Karrada, the scene of Thursday's quadruple bombings, residents gathered at Radhi Hussein's tea shop, about 10 yards from a gas station where one of the bombs killed three police officers and seven civilians. They exchanged news about who had escaped the blast and who had not, whose shop had been damaged and whose hadn't. Hushed comments such as "Oh no, did he die? Poor guy," alternated with exclamations of "Thanks be to God, he's still alive!"
Hussein recounted what had happened to a policeman named Ali, "a very nice young man" who used to come to his shop every morning to have tea. "I saw him," Hussein said. "He was crawling on the street. Then he stopped moving, and that was it."
Naji Abid Ali, who was clearing broken glass from in front of his clothing store, said he believed the attacks were calculated to intensify tensions between Iraq's newly ascendant Shiite majority and the Sunnis, who dominated under Saddam Hussein.
"They are after Karrada because most of the people here are Shiite; they did the same thing in Shuala last night," he said. "But they will never be able to push us into a sectarian war. We are cleverer than that. We will rebuild everything they destroyed here but will never kill other Iraqis."
Already, repair work was underway at Albu Shujaa Mosque, where a car bomb had damaged the main gate and nearby houses and cars but caused no casualties. Workers climbed power poles to string a new electrical cable, and passers-by stopped to help clean up debris.
Nearby, a scruffy young man in dirty pants and an unbuttoned shirt stood staring at vegetables scattered on the ground by one of the explosions. Bending over and picking up an onion spattered with blood, he began to cry.
"Every one of you in Karrada calls me Crazy Ali," he said to no one in particular. "But I would never do such a thing. I am better than you sane people. At least I do not hurt you."
Special correspondent Naseer Nouri contributed to this report.