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Staying cool by a pool in Baghdad

As the blast furnace of summer brought 115-plus-degree days, vast areas of Baghdad still have as little as one hour of electricity a day, leaving the capital's 6 million residents to sweat and stew.
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Sitting poolside under a gauzy green canopy in short pants and a T-shirt, munching fresh fruit and bite-size sweets, carpet salesman Amir Rahim tries to keep Iraq's war at bay.

He pays no more attention to the helicopters that roar overhead than he would to a passing truck, except that the street in front of his house is blocked off by concrete barriers. The rat-a-tat of AK-47s is so frequent that it's possible not to hear it anymore. And the new rooftop pool has eased his family's cabin fever, offering a refreshing substitute for visits they no longer make to parks, clubs, markets and friends' homes.

But one byproduct of the four-year war is so pervasive that it is impossible to ignore. As the blast furnace of summer brought 115-plus-degree days, vast areas of Baghdad -- including Rahim's neighborhood -- still have as little as one hour of electricity a day, leaving the capital's 6 million residents to sweat and stew.

"We're getting about one hour every four days, and we don't have cold water or the refrigerator, so we're buying ice from the market," said Rahim, 32, who lives in the Karada neighborhood. In the market where his wall-to-wall carpet shop is located, "every five minutes there is a quarrel or fight because of the heat," he said. "Just yesterday, people were fighting each other, boxing and kicking each other, over a piece of apricot."

The military might focus on a new security plan, Iraqi and U.S. politicians might fuss over political reforms and timelines and reconciliation, but in the streets and homes of Baghdad, the demands are more elemental -- to flick a switch and get some light, to turn a faucet and get some water. The lack of such necessities breeds discontent, and lofty talk of more elections and constitutional reforms seems like a twisted joke from a government that cannot walk, let alone run.

"You talk about sharing oil revenues and constitutional reforms -- why should we care if we don't benefit from it?" asked Zainab S. Shakir, an Iraqi official at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Baghdad. The provision of basic services, she said, is directly related to improving Iraq's security.

"If we want electricity, we need a generator, and we need fuel and we need money. And if you can't get a job, then the insurgents come and pay our kids to work for them."

Tangled webs of wire
Private generators straining to keep up with demand roar on every block, and utility poles drip with chaotic, tangled webs of colorful wires; some run to community generators, others are jury-rigged to steal electricity from adjacent neighborhoods' grids.

Rahim's brood -- one of three small families living in his father's house -- uses both schemes. Since the war began, he has gone through 15 generators at about $450 apiece. During the summer, he spends his entire salary -- about $950 a month -- to repair and run the generators and keep his family's home powered for 14 hours a day -- and that's without air conditioning. The remaining 10 hours they have no electricity.

With monthly incomes in Iraq averaging about $200, most people here have far less power.

Not everyone has a pool, of course. In fact, almost no one does, particularly on the roof. But the heat is unbearable, so amid the daily car bombs, suicide attacks and mortar strikes -- and the uncertainty that accompanies every commute to work or visit to the market -- Rahim made a pact to do everything he could to create a decent life for his wife, Abeer, and their two children.

Because of family obligations -- minding the carpet business, supporting his extended family of 11 -- escape from Iraq was impossible.

"I'm not able to go into the street -- the people in the street are not the same people we know anymore -- and there are no clubs, no pools, no parks, no gyms, so we just convinced ourselves that we'll have to adapt to the whole thing," his wife said.

Up went the green tarp ($400), and in went the 3-foot-deep, 15-foot-across, circular, aboveground pool ($300). Rahim and his wife sometimes sneak up at night for a private dip after the kids go to sleep. Even now, they occasionally sleep on the roof for relief from the heat, despite the helicopters and danger from shrapnel.

Rahim fetched a jagged, one-inch shard he found by the pool recently. "You reach a level when you're downstairs suffering, and even if it means you're going to die, you go up," he said.

Everything gets deferred when the electricity is off, his wife said. One recent day when the power suddenly came on for an hour, she raced around doing six loads of laundry, ironing bundles of clothes and cleaning the house.

"Amir was so impressed -- he wanted to film me, I was working so fast," she said.

Their two generators provide enough power to run two refrigerators, two or three air coolers (machines that blow air through a water-soaked filter) and a satellite dish for their television.

Buying fuel is a different matter. Even though Iraq has the world's third-largest oil reserves, there is a severe fuel shortage here. So rather than waiting in gas lines for up to eight hours and paying about $1.15 a gallon, most Iraqis buy it on the black market for about $3.30 a gallon.

"You'll die if you wait in line with this heat," Rahim said, explaining that a friend who recently went to fill up his gas can at 5 a.m. finally made it to the pump at 2:30 p.m.

Dubious statistics
A May 31 U.S. Embassy "fact sheet" about the electricity situation in Iraq asserted that Baghdad receives an average of eight hours of power a day. A spokesman for the Ministry of Electricity said residents received six hours of power a day.

But no one knows who's getting it. In an informal canvassing of nine major neighborhoods in Baghdad -- from Shiite Sadr City in the northeast to Sunni Khadra in the west, and a mix of Sunni and Shiite areas in between -- residents in eight neighborhoods said they received about two hours of electricity a day. In the ninth, Shiite Kadhimiyah, residents said they had power for about six hours a day.

An exception was people who live near government ministries and hospitals, who said they often had power during working hours.

A June 12 study by the National Security Network, a private advocacy group, found that while the United States has spent $3.1 billion to improve electricity in Iraq, the power generated in May was 6 percent less than prewar levels. "Over the past three weeks, Baghdad has suffered severe power and water shortages of up to 23 hours a day," the study said.

For Abeer Rahim, the situation is particularly maddening because after the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the government of Saddam Hussein restored power in 40 days, she said, even though the United States had severely damaged the country's electric grid.

"They go on TV now and say they spent billions for electricity and water projects in Baghdad, but where are they?" she asked.

Disbelief that the world's only superpower cannot fix Iraq's power problems when it can put a man on the moon is widespread, according to Brig. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, the deputy commander of support for Baghdad. "That whole idea of an expectation that we promised and haven't delivered causes a great deal of problems," he said in a statement this month.

Residents in Sunni areas of the city complain that they chronically get less. They charge that the lack of electricity -- and water, and schools, and garbage pickup and other essential services -- is meant to drive them away, a form of "soft" ethnic cleansing by the Shiite-led government.

Brooks said that providing electricity was the responsibility of the government and that the United States had to ensure that government leaders "are not sectarian and are not biased in the delivery of essential services to all the people."

U.S. government officials say their efforts have been stymied by maintenance problems, corruption, smuggling, fuel shortages and skyrocketing demand -- explanations that resonate with Rahim, who traces most of Iraq's problems to inept and corrupt government.

‘One sincere, honorable person’
"How can you have good services without a pure, uncorrupt government?" he asked.

"Forget about reconstruction -- what we are waiting for is change in the whole state," he said. "I just want one sincere, honorable person running Iraq. If he rules, even if we have to wait five or six years, there will be hope. But with the people we have now, even if you build 100 power plants, there's no hope."

Special correspondent Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad contributed to this report .