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A Night With the Powerless

A reporter spends a long, hot night with a family in Baghdad, where the shortage of electricity has dimmed hopes for postwar Iraq.

June 24, 2004|Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Night is the worst time, everyone in the Qadr family agrees.

"Around 3 o'clock, it often gets so hot, everyone is awake," says 26-year-old Ali, the oldest of three sons. The family will chat in the dark for a while, "but eventually, we've talked about every subject. We're sick of hearing the same things, we're too tired to talk, but too hot to sleep. It's awful."

Ali is describing how the Qadrs have lived for more than a year without regular electricity to someone who has always taken power for granted -- an American.

The family lives just off Baghdad's airport highway, where U.S. soldiers and foreign contractors are regularly shot at or bombed, in a neighborhood called Jihad. Foreign journalists glimpse the community from a distance when covering the highway ambushes.

On this night, the 15 members of the Qadr family have welcomed one of those reporters into their spacious two-story concrete-and-brick home. They have agreed to set aside their considerable pride to show someone who has always had air-conditioning, hot showers, chilled water and clean clothes what it feels like to lose those comforts and more.

Patriarch Abed Qadr, a 60-year-old unemployed farm worker, had hoped for brighter days after the ouster of Saddam Hussein. But since the U.S. took control of Iraq with a fighting force using satellites, computers and high-tech weaponry, the Qadrs' daily existence has slipped to something resembling life in the early 20th century.

For as many as 16 hours a day, there is no power. The house relies on an electric pump to deliver water, so no electricity means no running water. Toilets don't flush. Taking baths, washing dishes and laundering clothes are infrequent privileges.

In the 110-degree daytime heat, there are no fans. No working refrigerators. No ice cubes.

The night provides little relief. In the pitch-black darkness of his garden, where he has taken refuge from the sauna-like air in the house, Qadr explains his disillusionment. "I'm concerned if you write what I tell you, it will sound like I support Saddam," Qadr says.

It is 10 o'clock. Qadr speaks slowly, just loud enough to be heard over the rolling background noise of automatic-rifle fire. A small flashlight, brought by his visitor, is propped on a table for light.

"After the Americans came, I believed President Bush. I thought things would be better in Iraq," he says. "But now, after almost a year and a half, there is no electricity, no water. There is more unemployment. My life is worse than it was before the war."

U.S. occupation officials had predicted that electricity would return to prewar levels -- when Baghdad residents had power for all but a few hours each day -- by June 2003. This month, the Coalition Provisional Authority said it had finally reached prewar output. But for Baghdad residents, there has been little noticeable improvement.

As the U.S.-led coalition prepares to hand power to Iraqis next week, the inability to restore electricity to Baghdad after more than a year has shattered Iraqi confidence that the transfer will produce a functional society.

Iraq's Electricity Ministry says sabotage of power plants and transmission facilities is keeping power from reaching citizens. The ministry also says desperate residents have figured out how to illegally tap power lines, cutting power in other areas while taking it for themselves.

Dallas Lawrence, a spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority, says power, which under Hussein was diverted to Baghdad from the rest of Iraq, is now spread "equitably over a national grid. Millions of Iraqis now have eight to 12 hours a day when they used to have zero."

Qadr has no patience for such explanations. "People who live in palaces can't say such things," he says, referring to Baghdad's fortified Green Zone in which coalition officials live and work.

"They are behind their desks in their headquarters. They have no idea how others suffer," he says, turning his palms upward in exasperation.

Just then, something explodes in the distance. It could be a scheduled detonation of ordnance at a coalition base. Perhaps it is a car bomb, or a roadside explosive. Things still blow up every few hours in Baghdad. Qadr raises his eyebrows and says nothing.

One of Qadr's sons brings a silver tray with glasses of powdered orange drink. The drinks, which have been chilled in the family's on-again-off-again refrigerators, are a bit cooler than the ambient air, which seems to be about 80 degrees at 11 at night.

Without working refrigerators, the family buys just enough fresh food to consume the same day. Ali says that before the war, the family bought lamb or chicken twice a week. Now, because they can't save leftovers, they occasionally prepare a small amount of meat and finish it all for lunch. Most of the time, it's not worth the bother.

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