BAGHDAD — In the tightknit Kemp al Arman section of central Baghdad, there are often just two hours of electricity a day. Many families have been forgoing meat for more than a month, water only trickles from the taps, and garbage is piling up knee-deep on the street corners.
Gunfire rattles through the night, tormenting residents who cannot sleep because of the heat that builds up inside their mud and concrete homes during Baghdad's notorious heat waves. In years past, they would have slept on their roofs. But the danger of stray bullets eliminates that option.
One poor-to-middling neighborhood dotted with car workshops does not a country make, but Kemp al Arman is by no means unique. Across much of Iraq, the sense of desperation that has grown in more than six weeks of U.S. occupation is reaching crisis proportions.
The hope for better times that greeted the demise of President Saddam Hussein's regime and the expectation that a country as powerful and efficient as the United States would quickly restore order have not been fulfilled.
Much of the blame is falling on the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, the U.S. civil administration in Iraq. Experts now fear that its failures could threaten the transition to an interim Iraqi government by causing a catastrophic erosion of public confidence and increased demands for the U.S. to get out altogether.
Senior officials within ORHA describe the upcoming handover to new Iraqi authorities as one of their most important challenges.
Under the current transition formula, the occupation authorities, together with a variety of Iraqi groups and individuals, will select about 300 delegates to a conference that will set the future course of the country. It will choose an interim governing authority, draw up a constitution, reform the legal system and, over a year or two, prepare the country for free elections.
American officials insist that the conference can succeed only if it is put together carefully, assuring it is broadly representative of all Iraqi political strains.
But the chaos and disillusionment of the early weeks of American control have weakened that argument. Some political parties are complaining that the U.S. is taking too long to set up an interim government that has real powers to address Iraq's many problems. The top U.S. diplomat in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, says it can be formed no sooner than July.
"It is politicians, or the politically minded, who are unhappy about being without a government," said one analyst, Baghdad University political science professor Wamidh Nadhmi.
But the clamoring for a new interim government could spread to the wider population soon unless conditions improve, he said. Already, "the majority of the people are extremely unhappy because of the lack of services and the lack of security," he noted.
The Kemp al Arman district is a case in point.
Residents say they do not really know what the Americans are doing or what they plan. For most, any contact with the Americans comes only when the helmeted, flak-jacketed Army troops periodically rumble through their narrow streets, smiling at the children, or when the troops are guarding the local filling station where the line of vehicles waiting for gasoline may snake for half a mile.
Meanwhile, cupboards go bare and cash reserves dwindle, leaving residents frustrated and resentful that the U.S. appointees are failing in what Iraqis see as any authority's minimum tasks: providing security, electricity and water, paying state salaries and ensuring an adequate supply of food.
Sattah Jabaar Kadhim, 45, a mechanic, said that he and his wife, Hanaan, and their eight children are barely coping without the food rations that Hussein's government used to provide. Kadhim earns about $3 a day and must pay $50 a month in rent on their three-room hovel, which is furnished with three broken chairs. The rest of the money goes for food, which has become more expensive since the war. The family's breakfast consists of tomatoes and bread that Hanaan makes herself in a rooftop oven. (She has to scavenge for wood to burn because the price of propane has tripled.) Dinner is often the same -- bread and tomatoes -- and they have not had meat in months, he said.
"We don't see anything from the Americans," he said. "They just talk on, saying we are going to do this or that -- and nothing."
Still, he says he is willing to give the U.S. a little more time, and he acknowledges that the shooting and looting sprees have begun to diminish thanks to a more aggressive stance by troops in recent days.
Nevertheless, evidence of tension is growing. A draft memorandum that seven leading political groups plan to present to U.S. authorities in the next few days demands an immediate end to American political control. It accuses the U.S. officials of a "systematic stripping of sovereignty from the Iraqi people."