Lack of electricity and water puts Iraqis on edge during heat of summer

By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 23, 2010; A06

At least three times a week, Maher Abbas brings one of his two young children or his elderly mother to the hospital to be treated for dehydration, stomach bugs or heat exhaustion.

Lack of water and electricity are killing his family and his business, he said.

"I have so much anger," Abbas said outside the music store he runs in the poor neighborhood of Amil, in western Baghdad. When there is no power, there is no music playing in the store, and customers don't come. "I can't work," he said. "I can't support my family. We're dying from the heat. Where are these politicians?"

Abbas's comments reflect a wave of fury that has erupted across this country of 30 million as Iraq's sweltering summer begins. Most people are having to deal with electricity shortages that leave them with no respite from the heat and no water when their household electric pumps shut off.

Seven years after the U.S.-led invasion, Iraqis are taking to the streets to demand basic services they have not received, despite many promises and the expenditure of billions of dollars by the U.S. and Iraqi governments. Their anger has forced the hand of Electricity Minister Karim Wahid, who resigned Monday.

In a news conference the same day, Wahid said the ministry could not keep up with demand and did not have enough money, adding that the situation was out of its control.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki defended his government and Wahid. He blamed Iraqis for consuming too much electricity, squatters for tapping into and overwhelming the electrical grid, and the previous parliament for not approving billions of dollars for infrastructure projects to be undertaken with several foreign firms, forcing the government to take out about $2.1 billion in bonds this year.

He also warned that Iraqis should expect power cuts for two more years.

"Do not expect the electricity problem to be solved before the power stations being built by . . . the Americans' GE, Germany's Siemens and other companies are completed, which will take two years at least," he said. "Iraq now is a workshop. The electricity stations are working. The oil companies are working. Water stations are working. Everything is working in Iraq -- but it needs time."

'We have no power'

At the peak of the war, electricity workers were targets of militants and insurgents, undermining the maintenance of service. At least 140 people from the Electricity Ministry have been killed in recent years.

The bigger threat now is angry citizens who curse electricity workers in the street, said Col. Qutaiba al-Kareem Saleh, who oversees security for ministry employees in parts of the capital.

Sweat dripped down Sadiq Jassim's face Tuesday as the ministry engineer stood outside in central Baghdad with an electrician. Yet another electricity box had blown in the heat, and it would be days before they could replace it, he said.

The problem is so bad, he said, that ministry employees share people's contempt for them. "We hate ourselves," he said. "We have no power in our own homes. I want to leave this country. It's hell."

As the temperature soars some days above 120 degrees and public anger boils over, Iraq still has not seated a new government more than three months after national elections, although that has not changed U.S. plans to draw down to 50,000 troops by September.

"The problem is that demand has doubled, outstripping even increased supply," U.S. Embassy spokesman Philip Frayne said in an e-mailed statement. He said supply has more than doubled since before the invasion, but he added that citizens' dissatisfaction points up "the need to form a new government quickly so that the government can focus all its attention on providing essential services."

Spurts of violence

Demonstrations across the country about the lack of services have turned violent in recent days. On Saturday, one person was killed and three were wounded when police opened fire on angry protesters. One of the wounded later died of his injuries. In Nasiriyah on Sunday, protesters threw stones at the provincial council building, injuring several police officers. Every night in Baghdad's Firdaus Square, Iraqi intellectuals gather for a sit-in to demand a government, security and services.

A complex web of factors lies behind Iraq's power shortages. But one is basic: Demand outruns supply. Iraqis need about 14,000 megawatts of electricity a month, roughly double what the nation can generate. Most people have power in their homes for less than four hours a day.

"We cannot produce to keep up with the demand," said Sabah Kadhim, the head of electricity distribution for the western half of Baghdad. "It's been the same problem for decades. But officials made promises, and things haven't gotten better, and the citizens are angry."

In eastern Baghdad, Zuheir Aboud, 64, sits in his plant nursery and weeps. The soil is dry, and there is not enough electricity to cool the greenhouses.

The nursery has been in his family for generations, but he worries that his history will die with him.

"I think we will die before we see change," he said. "Maybe there will be change for my sons."

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