When truck driver Said Abdul-Wahab al-Obeidi needed to find a new career after the roads of Iraq grew too dangerous, he looked for a business with a bright future.
So he sold his rig, bought a massive generator and set up his own electric company.
With Baghdad's electricity network in tatters after years of corruption, neglect and attacks, a thriving black market in power has sprung up across the capital. In nearly every neighborhood, multicolored bundles of wires flow from private generators that have all but replaced the national power grid.
The black market has grown so large that U.S. inspectors estimate private generators produce more than one-third of Iraq's power supply. In Baghdad, where many neighborhoods have not had more than an hour of daily electricity for weeks, it almost certainly accounts for more.
The freelance power merchants also highlight the continuing failure of plans — mostly bankrolled by Washington — to restore many of Iraq's public services to even prewar levels.
"The government is not able and not serious enough to tackle the electricity problem, so we are likely to continue in this business for a long time," al-Obeidi said.
Power shortages in the capital have been a persistent complaint since the U.S.-led invasion more than four years ago. But Baghdad residents say the problem has never been this bad — not under crippling U.N. sanctions during Saddam Hussein's reign and not even during the opening rounds of the war in 2003.
'This is our miserable life'
Many people have stopped buying meat because refrigerators have grown warm. Some Iraqis on higher floors can't get water without power. With the approach of the scorching summer months — with temperatures well over 100 degrees the norm — many fear they will not even be able to run a small fan so they can sleep at night.
"What can we do? This is our miserable life, and we have to cope with it," said Shafika Tawfiq Taher, a 55-year-old mother of three from Baghdad's once-upscale Mansour neighborhood.
Iraqi officials blame unrelenting insurgent attacks on electricity pylons, power stations, government workers and fuel deliveries for the near-collapse of the system.
"This blind terror is primarily responsible for what we have suffered in this vital sector," Adil Abdul-Mahdi, one of Iraq's two vice presidents, told a conference on electricity last week.
The United States also blames corruption for the problems. An estimated $2 billion has disappeared from funds to rebuild Iraq's electricity infrastructure.
Abdul-Mahdi said Iraq's 27 million people need 9,000 megawatts of power daily to meet their minimum requirements. In the United States, that's enough for between 2.5 million and nearly 4 million homes depending on consumption patterns.
A U.S. Government Accountability Office study released this month said Iraq was getting less than half that — only 3,803 megawatts — at the end of February.
The U.S. government had hoped Iraqis would receive 12 hours of electricity a day by the end of 2006, but by the end of February they averaged only 8.6 hours of power and Baghdad was getting just over five, the GAO report said.
The situation in the capital has grown far worse since then.
Days on end without electricity
Lawmakers were sent home early in May when power cut out in the parliament building, taking the lights and the air conditioning with it. Many residents say they go days with no power.
Electricity Minister Karim Waheed said insurgents struck the network feeding the capital from the north and the south about two weeks ago, cutting the city off from the national grid. Electricity officials say the power flow is so erratic, they don't know how much power is making it to the capital.
Many people get by with personal generators, but rising fuel and maintenance costs have made running them prohibitive.
Fuad Abdul-Hussein, 44, who lives in the Shiite slum of Sadr City, said he can afford to run his generator only for a few hours. He bought flashlights so his sons can study for exams, and he stores drinking water in a big, clay jar to keep it cool.
Thousands — possibly millions — have plugged into the black market. So many, in fact, that those generators are churning out an estimated 2,000 megawatts of power, more than half as much as the government produces, according to the U.S. report.
Many generators are set up in empty lots, on sidewalks or in yards, and their roar has become regular background noise across the capital.
In the central Baghdad neighborhood of Sadoun, red, green, blue and yellow wires coming out of nearly every home weave together overhead in a brilliant canopy. The generator sits in a cage surrounded by razor wire in a parking lot.
About 150 families in the northern Baghdad neighborhood of Azamiyah hook into the generator al-Obeidi bought with the $20,000 he got from selling his truck. For the monthly price of $9 an ampere, he feeds them six hours of electricity a day.
Air conditioners for the wealthy
Many homes buy just five amps, a minimal amount that can power lights, a refrigerator and a few fans for $45 a month. Wealthier Iraqis using air conditioners pay as much as four times that.
Those who can't pay their monthly bill get cut off.
"If everything goes well with me, I can make $1,000 to $1,500 each month," he said.
That is only about half what the father of four made as a truck driver. He also struggles to find spare parts for the generator when it breaks down — which forces him to cut off service for days at a time — and has to cope with the skyrocketing price of fuel, now about $4 a gallon.
But he expects business to soar with the temperature.
"My generator is already overwhelmed, so I'm planning to bring another one in to cope with the demands as summer approaches," he said.
Other generator operators are running into problems. With fuel shortages sending the cost of gas skyrocketing, they have been forced to raise prices even as they cut back on the number of hours of service they provide.
Some have left the business altogether.
"With the heat rising, we feel like we are in an oven, especially when we sleep," said the mother, Taher, whose local generator operator recently pulled the plug.
To cope, they are preparing to sleep on the roof, an old custom here that has become very dangerous with mortar attacks and gunfights roiling the city.
She says Iraqi and U.S. officials, with their industrial generators and 24-hour electricity, are too sheltered. "I just want them, if they care about our hardship as they say, to spend a day in a house of a normal family, to see the suffering," she said.