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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Electricity Iffy, Residents Sweat the Small Stuff

June 26, 2006|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — With the heat soaring and the overtaxed and dilapidated power grid squeezing out barely a few hours of electricity a day in parts of the capital, sweaty Iraqis will remember this as the fourth simmering summer of their discontent.

It is more than 120 degrees outside and relief is nowhere in sight.

"We don't know how to deal with the electricity cuts," said Shama Adib, 37, a graphic designer and mother of three. "We don't know what to do."

Curfews keep her and other Baghdad residents from wandering the streets and parks in search of ice cream and cool drinks, the pastime of choice during hot summer nights in other Persian Gulf countries. Instead, she and her kids sit at home all day and all night and sweat.

"We just stare at each other," she said.

"This puts psychological pressure on us. It aggravates us. Most of the people in my neighborhood tend to explode over the littlest things. Even me, I think I'm going insane."

According to the U.S. State Department, Iraq this month met its electricity production goals for the first time since last summer.

But the power supply still falls about 33% short of demand, largely because of the influx of electrical appliances after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Overtaxed and crumbling lines in the capital have meant Baghdad often gets less power than the provinces.

According to a cable from U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to the State Department, a copy of which was printed by the Washington Post, one Baghdad neighborhood recently went a whole month without any electricity.

Some residents have come up with creative ways to beat the heat.

Many take multiple showers a day. While waiting for power that comes on for about 90 minutes every six hours, Safwan Baghdadi, 36, sprays the trees of his garden with water and cools off by letting the drops cool his face. But the power cuts mean water pumps also give way, and the pressure on the taps slows to a trickle.

Many Iraqis now own generators. But black-market fuel prices have risen over the last few months to about $2.80 per gallon, compared with the pennies a gallon Iraqis used to pay before subsidies were ended last year.

Few Iraqis can afford to have their generators run more than a few hours a day.

Ali Abdullah, 31, says he pays the neighborhood electricity kingpin $60 a month for a few hours of power each day and spends an additional $105 a month for fueling and maintaining his own generator.

"We are living in the middle of a mockery," Abdullah said. "Sometimes we think they're doing this on purpose just to keep us occupied with something. During Saddam Hussein's regime he used to keep us without electricity just so we don't think of getting rid of him."

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A Few Warm Laughs

While politicians may be obsessed with ministry allocations and security measures, the power most Iraqis are concerned about is the kind that runs ceiling fans and refrigerators. Cartoonists find some humor in their plight as the country enters another triple-digit summer with only a few hours of electricity a day.

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