Staying Cool by a Pool, in Baghdad

Amir Rahim and his son, Ahmed, 3, relax on their rooftop patio. Rahim's family is one of three small broods living in his father's Baghdad house.
Amir Rahim and his son, Ahmed, 3, relax on their rooftop patio. Rahim's family is one of three small broods living in his father's Baghdad house. (Photos By John Ward Anderson -- The Washington Post)
By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 24, 2007

BAGHDAD -- Sitting poolside under a gauzy green canopy in short pants and a T-shirt, munching fresh fruit and bite-size sweets, carpet salesman Amir Rahim tries to keep Iraq's war at bay.

He pays no more attention to the helicopters that roar overhead than he would to a passing truck, except that the street in front of his house is blocked off by concrete barriers. The rat-a-tat of AK-47s is so frequent that it's possible not to hear it anymore. And the new rooftop pool has eased his family's cabin fever, offering a refreshing substitute for visits they no longer make to parks, clubs, markets and friends' homes.

But one byproduct of the four-year war is so pervasive that it is impossible to ignore. As the blast furnace of summer brought 115-plus-degree days, vast areas of Baghdad -- including Rahim's neighborhood -- still have as little as one hour of electricity a day, leaving the capital's 6 million residents to sweat and stew.

"We're getting about one hour every four days, and we don't have cold water or the refrigerator, so we're buying ice from the market," said Rahim, 32, who lives in the Karada neighborhood. In the market where his wall-to-wall carpet shop is located, "every five minutes there is a quarrel or fight because of the heat," he said. "Just yesterday, people were fighting each other, boxing and kicking each other, over a piece of apricot."

The military might focus on a new security plan, Iraqi and U.S. politicians might fuss over political reforms and timelines and reconciliation, but in the streets and homes of Baghdad, the demands are more elemental -- to flick a switch and get some light, to turn a faucet and get some water. The lack of such necessities breeds discontent, and lofty talk of more elections and constitutional reforms seems like a twisted joke from a government that cannot walk, let alone run.

"You talk about sharing oil revenues and constitutional reforms -- why should we care if we don't benefit from it?" asked Zainab S. Shakir, an Iraqi official at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Baghdad. The provision of basic services, she said, is directly related to improving Iraq's security.

"If we want electricity, we need a generator, and we need fuel and we need money. And if you can't get a job, then the insurgents come and pay our kids to work for them."

Private generators straining to keep up with demand roar on every block, and utility poles drip with chaotic, tangled webs of colorful wires; some run to community generators, others are jury-rigged to steal electricity from adjacent neighborhoods' grids.

Rahim's brood -- one of three small families living in his father's house -- uses both schemes. Since the war began, he has gone through 15 generators at about $450 apiece. During the summer, he spends his entire salary -- about $950 a month -- to repair and run the generators and keep his family's home powered for 14 hours a day -- and that's without air conditioning. The remaining 10 hours they have no electricity.

With monthly incomes in Iraq averaging about $200, most people here have far less power.

Not everyone has a pool, of course. In fact, almost no one does, particularly on the roof. But the heat is unbearable, so amid the daily car bombs, suicide attacks and mortar strikes -- and the uncertainty that accompanies every commute to work or visit to the market -- Rahim made a pact to do everything he could to create a decent life for his wife, Abeer, and their two children.

Because of family obligations -- minding the carpet business, supporting his extended family of 11 -- escape from Iraq was impossible.

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