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.
Ali Hamrani, 37, an unemployed government worker, said he has no confidence in the local government, which he believes is completely corrupt.
"You want me to tell you the truth? The officials at the municipal office are all crooks, and there is not an honest employee amongst them," he said. "The reality is that services are not much different than two years ago."
He said residents of his neighborhood in Sadr City, a densely populated Shiite district, are frustrated that they still receive only six to eight hours of electricity a day. But they were thrilled when the local government laid down pipes about six months ago that improved their water flow dramatically.
Unfortunately, the workers who dug up the road to install the pipes knocked out the telephone lines, which have remained out of service. Most frustrating to Hamrani is the lack of a sewage system, which has resulted in small lakes of feces-filled effluent in parts of Sadr City.
"Yes, we can say that there have been improvements in some areas of services," Hamrani said. "But not as much as we had hoped for or as much as we need."Quantifying the Situation
Military officials struggling to quantify improvements in Iraqis' quality of life are wary after the intense scrutiny that security statistics have come under this year.
In an attempt to demonstrate transparency in the way the military compiles a wide range of data, more than 20 senior American officials conducted a two-day seminar for reporters this week at a military base just outside Baghdad.
The U.S. military has developed sophisticated reporting techniques and computer software systems to measure everything from Sunni deaths at the hands of Shiites, and vice versa, to the numbers of suicide and roadside bombs and trained Iraqi army officers. Details of an enemy attack in the field are reported and compiled in an enormous database -- containing information on hundreds of thousands of incidents -- less than two hours after they occur.
The military says it is constantly updating and clarifying its data. Aides informed Petraeus this week that closer analysis had shown that the number of mostly Sunni volunteers who have signed up to aid U.S. forces fighting the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq was 60,321 and not the 77,000 that senior military commanders and administration officials in Washington have used repeatedly.
Officers said the command is bracing for a new round of controversy when the Pentagon releases its next quarterly Iraq progress report to Congress in about 10 days. For the first time -- assuming the Pentagon accepts the recommendations of senior commanders here -- the report will include Iraqi government data on the number of attacks against civilians nationwide that the U.S. military believes are far less accurate than its own.
But Col. William E. Rapp, a senior Petraeus aide, said the truth is probably somewhere in between the U.S. and Iraqi figures. As American forces begin withdrawing from parts of Iraq, he said, the U.S. command will become ever more dependent on Iraqis to provide security information.
"It's a falsehood to say that if an American didn't see it, it didn't happen in Iraq," he said. "At some point in time, we're going to have to cut the string and just say, you know, okay, we just don't know much about what's going on" in major parts of Iraq, Rapp said. "We're just going to have to live with that."
And as the Iraqis become chiefly responsible for security, Rapp said, "maybe we're going to be shifting our real assessment to economic measures."
The apparent dysfunction within the Iraqi government, however, can make it difficult to obtain accurate information.
The Ministry of Electricity, for example, did not respond to repeated requests for data on power supplied to Baghdad residents. Aides in the office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said they were also unable to obtain the figures.
"We do not have very good systems in place right now for transmitting information," said one of the aides, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
According to a military presentation based on figures from the U.S. Embassy's Iraqi Transition Assistance Office, however, an average of 15.7 hours of power was provided in October nationwide.
Maysan province in the southeast received the least, 11.6 hours, while Anbar province in the west received the most, 23.3 hours. Baghdad was on the lower end, with about 11.9 hours per day. State Department figures from six months ago showed the city receiving an average of 5.1 hours a day.'Not the New Iraq'
No residents of Baghdad interviewed for this article said they received power for nearly 12 hours a day. Assad Wazan, 36, a generator operator in Karrada, one of the most stable and prosperous neighborhoods in the capital, said he receives about six hours of power a day. Last month, he said, there was often no power for days on end.
When he called the power company to complain, Wazan said, he was told that nearly all the power was going to the compounds of powerful political figures in the neighborhood, such as President Jalal Talabani.
"These people are getting 24 hours of electricity a day," Wazan said on a recent evening. "It's just not right. This is not the new Iraq we were waiting for."
But there have been some recent improvements, Wazan said. The water they received before was undrinkable. "It looked like this," he said, pointing at a cup of coffee. "Now we drink it, and none of my children have gotten diarrhea," he said. "Yet."
U.S. officials are working with the Iraqi government on projects to improve life for Baghdad residents. A 14 1/2 -mile sewage line on the west side of the city that serves 3 million people went from 35 percent operational in May to 80 percent this month, the military said in a statement. The giant al-Boetha landfill south of the city is 90 percent built.
The Maliki government has also appointed former cabinet minister Ahmed Chalabi to head a committee charged with improving services in Baghdad.
"They're taking a kind of ombudsman approach to solving things now," said the senior U.S. diplomat. "They're talking about one generator, an irrigation pump, how to get doctors into one health clinic. You might say these aren't big strategic decisions, but they're responding to actual, direct, local concerns. That's new."
Mahmoud Sami Fakhrideen, 39, a Sunni spare car parts salesman, said he has noticed an improvement in trash collection in his Zayouna neighborhood. And the electricity has increased from about two hours in the summer to six hours this month. But he is angry about the sewage that flows in the streets, the high price of gasoline and his perception that Shiite neighborhoods are receiving more than Sunni areas.
"It was definitely so much better for us before the war," he said. "We were never suffering the way we are now."
Special correspondents Naseer Nouri and Zaid Sabah contributed to this report.