In the oppressive swelter of the Iraqi summer, where temperatures reach 110 degrees by morning rush hour, life in thousands of run-down apartments and shops in this once-modern capital revolves around a primitive routine for heat survival.
This is the second summer since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and people here widely expected power to be restored by now. Instead, the city's electricity shuts off four or five times a day under a government energy-rationing scheme while officials struggle to revive a power system ravaged by war, vandalism and years of neglect.
When the lights die and the air stops moving, Thakaa Abrar, 45, picks up a newspaper and begins fanning her husband, a customs worker bedridden by a stroke. Her refrigerator is almost empty, a precaution against spoilage, and she will buy only enough food to cook for supper.
Her daughter Duniya, 21, fills dozens of soft drink bottles with water, ready to pour into an ancient cooler that pushes air through a filter of wet wood shavings. Even at night, someone must get up every 15 minutes to empty another bottle into the contraption.
"This is no way for a family to live. We are tired. Everyone is tired, because it is impossible to sleep," said Abrar, offering visitors a tray of warm soft drinks in her cramped apartment. "We could never afford to buy a generator. When the pipes break, I have to beg for water in the shops. And with all this terrorism, I can't even let my daughters go out for ice cream."
Even in a place accustomed to stultifying summers, the heat seems especially rankling to Baghdad residents this season. In the streets, where traffic is perpetually jammed and many cars are without air conditioning, tempers and radiators frequently boil over in the long lines at checkpoints set up by U.S. Army patrols and Iraqi police.
In the shops, merchants depend on daily supplies of ice blocks, produced round-the-clock in local factories and delivered early in the morning on dripping flatbed trucks or wooden handcarts. The price of ice, once about 25 cents a block, has shot up since most factories had to purchase large generators last year to keep up production; now a single block can cost $2 retail on delivery.
"The power cutoffs are a continuous problem, but we can't stop production because people need ice so badly," said Ayad Alfred Lassow, 47, whose grandfather founded the Crystal Ice Factory in the 1960s. "Cement factories use crushed ice to keep the machines cool; fish sellers use blocks of it to keep the fish fresh. I think it will be years before the electricity is normal and people can use refrigerators."
Under Lassow's watchful eye Monday morning, row after row of 12-pound ice blocks inside metal tubes were mechanically lifted from a giant, open-air refrigeration tank, turned upside down and dropped into a huge metal tray, where perspiring workers lifted them into waiting delivery trucks.
Last summer, the intense heat contributed to outbreaks of street violence in several cities. Angry mobs clashed with foreign troops, blaming the occupation forces for failing to restore power and asserting that after the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Saddam Hussein's government had the electricity working again within weeks.
This time, with temperatures reaching 117 degrees and expected to climb, public frustration has turned against the new Iraqi government, which has begun rationing electricity in an effort to balance the limited power supply among urban and provincial users.
Iraqi officials said this week that they had made considerable progress in rebuilding damaged power plants and transmission lines but that they continue to encounter vandalism and illegal power diversion. They said that only one gas turbine in Baghdad was in operation and that construction of a second one had been suspended because of terrorist threats.
"We are trying to be fair, and we are doing much better than last year," Electricity Minister Aiham Alsammarae said in an interview. "Our lines can carry the bulk of power with no problem, but the plants are old and poorly maintained, and the terrorists keep hitting us. We can produce 5,200 megawatt hours now, but to keep everyone happy, we need to produce 7,500."
Alsammarae noted that most electricity was being provided free, because it has not been safe to monitor use or collect fees. He also said many poorer consumers had stolen power with hand-rigged cables, while many wealthier ones had purchased air conditioners and run them at full blast, putting a heavy drain on the system.
"People say we have democracy now, and they are free to do whatever they want, so they turn on every light and every air conditioner to the max," he said. "We are trying an experiment in certain districts, saying that if they cut down on electricity use, we will restore power there 24 hours a day. We'll have to see how they respond."
Since the summer began, Baghdad has been flooded with imported air conditioners and coolers, which are stacked high in boxes along sidewalks in many commercial areas. Most popular are the compact blue-and-white air coolers from Iran, which cost about $125 and can run on small generators.
But the import boom has nearly killed Iraq's state-subsidized cooler industry, which once produced tens of thousands of simple but sturdy contraptions a year. This week, the main Hilal Industries cooler factory stood nearly silent, with stacks of unsold machines and piles of fresh wood shavings lying untouched.
"Last summer, we sold 28,000 coolers. This summer, we have only sold 12,000," said Ali Shaker Ali, a manager at Hilal Industries. Under Hussein's rule, he recalled, "we had a lot of demand, and the government protected us. Now the borders are open, people are buying generators, and no one is buying from us anymore."
For many urban families, however, the coming of summer means simply having to endure. In one run-down apartment building this week, several neighbors gathered to commiserate. On each balcony was an old Iraqi-made cooler, but the power had been off for five hours and the rooms were stifling. One woman, a baker, was flushed pink from the heat of her oven. Another, a tailor, said she could operate her machine only a few hours each day.
"We take showers, we keep the doors shut, we fill empty bottles to drink, but after 10 minutes, we are hot again and the food starts to spoil," said Laila Rassool, 41, a mother of five. "Without electricity, life is nothing. We have our own government now, but they are doing nothing to help the people."
Across town, in a more modern building, a family was watching television Friday when the power cut off. A teenage boy rose from the couch, flipped on a generator switch, and the cartoons flickered back to life. His uncle said he thought people complained too much about minor postwar problems such as lack of electricity.
"At least we have freedom now," said Haider Jawad, 40, an electrician. "My brother was executed by Saddam in 1983, and when I bought a satellite receiver in 2000, I was always terrified of a knock on the door" because such devices were illegal.
"People should be patient and give the government time to work on these problems," he said. "Compared to the past, a little hot weather is nothing."