Iraqis' Quality of Life Marked By Slow Gains, Many Setbacks

By Amit R. Paley and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 30, 2007

BAGHDAD, Nov. 29 -- This war-battered city, according to U.S. statistics, now receives an average of 11.9 hours of electricity a day, far more than earlier this year. But don't tell that to Ghaida al-Banna.

For three straight days this week, the 50-year-old housewife's home in the once ritzy Mansour neighborhood received no power at all. Barely any water came out when she turned on the faucet. One thing Banna's area does have in abundance is uncollected garbage, piled into giant, malodorous heaps dotting the street.

"What kind of government allows its people to live like this?" Banna asked. "They don't know how to provide services. They don't know how to do anything. Everything is getting worse and worse."

As violence continues to dip across Iraq, U.S. officials say they will increasingly shift their barometers of success from security to basic services -- electricity, gasoline, water and sanitation -- that reflect whether life for Iraqis is returning to normal.

But according to interviews with more than two dozen people in neighborhoods throughout Baghdad, the effort to boost services has been uneven, marked by gradual successes and frequent setbacks. In some neighborhoods, residents have seen government workers spruce up their parks or provide a few more hours of electricity, while residents of other districts report conditions continually deteriorating.

The quality of life for Iraqis is expected to be at the center of an assessment Congress will receive in March from U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, according to U.S. diplomats and military officers. Yet officials are still struggling to determine how best to measure the normalcy of Iraqi life, a notion harder to quantify than attacks or corpses.

American officials remain concerned about the ability of the Iraqi government, which often seems paralyzed by internal dissent, to take advantage of the decrease in violence to boost services.

"Do we have a government that has the capacity to deliver basic levels of services?" said a senior U.S. diplomat here who declined to discuss the issue on the record. "If I had to answer that question right now, today, I'd say no, it's not good enough."

In an interview, Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani said the Iraqi government has improved basic services along with security. He said decreasing violence has allowed his ministry to reopen gas stations across the city. At those stations, where drivers last year sometimes waited for days to fill up, waits are now usually less than 15 minutes, decreasing the demand for black-market gas.

"The very visible improvement in the security situation has contributed to improvements in providing the basic needs, particularly the fuel products," Shahristani said. "People are very happy that we have opened up so many stations and they don't have to waste their time in lines."

But U.S. officials produced results of polling conducted for the military in Baghdad this month showing that while slight improvements were recorded, most residents are still far from satisfied with government services. Officials allowed a reporter to review results of the poll of 5,000 people but would not release a copy. The margin of error was unknown.

Almost 28 percent of those polled were satisfied with electrical service and 27 percent with gasoline, the data showed. Nearly 43 percent expressed satisfaction with trash removal, and 38 percent said the same about the provision of potable water. Only 9 percent of respondents were content with jobs.

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