In a toss-up between dodging bullets or staying indoors at night and sweating through Baghdad’s stifling summer heat, Mohsin Mohammed and his family have opted to risk the bullets.
The 53-year-old taxi driver, his wife and their 6-year-old daughter, like many of the Iraqi capital’s residents, sleep on the roof of their house, risking being hit by a stray bullet or mortar fired by one of the country’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of insurgents.
They have few other options. Power outages that occur several times a day make fans and air conditions largely useless. Only the night air brings a mild reprieve from daytime temperatures that can soar up to 125 degrees Fahrenheit.
“It was a hot and dusty day. I am sure a breeze will pass over and help us sleep,” said his wife, Ameera, shrugging off Mohammed’s worries of thieves or stray bullets.
For government, one of many challenges
Such choices have become a fact of life in post-war Iraq. But they also underscore the challenges confronting the new Iraqi government, which has struggled to restore reliable power service to the city at a time when demand is soaring because of air conditioners and insurgent attacks on the infrastructure continue unabated.
According to figures compiled by the Brookings Institute, Iraqi power plants generated an average of 4,293 megawatts of electricity in June 2004. Last month, that figure dropped to 4,035 megawatts, the Washington-based institute said.
Both figures are well below the target of 6,000 megawatts a month that officials set for July 2004.
Officials blame insurgents for much of the problem.
Rebels have targeted oil lines, electricity plants and other infrastructure projects vital to Iraq’s reconstruction, delaying the rebuilding, raising costs and discouraging skilled foreign workers from coming to a war-ravaged country where they could be kidnapped and killed.
Some experts say while Iraq needs to attract foreign investors to help rebuild the electricity sector, power companies are loath to do business here because power costs are so low and the risk to engineers and workers is high.
Before the U.S.-led invasion, Baghdad residents enjoyed about 20 hours of electricity a day, although U.S. officials say supplies in provincial cities were much lower.
Today, residents of the capital receive power for about 10 hours a day, usually broken into two-hour chunks.
Some, like Saad al-Samarraei, are lucky enough to have swimming pools and powerful generators that keep the air conditioners humming.
Reveling in a 'quiet and cool choice'
Al-Samarraei, an affluent Sunni Arab who lives in the Azamiyah district of north Baghdad, owns a hefty generator and an outdoor swimming pool that sits behind his home. Most of the family prefers the pool since the generator’s loud grinding is an annoyance.
“It’s a great gift having this quiet and cool choice, since we don’t have to tolerate the smoky and earsplitting engine,” al-Samarraei’s 22-year-old son Hussam said before taking a dip.
For Mohammed, the taxi driver, and the overwhelming majority of Baghdad residents, however, the generator and pool are the stuff of dreams. Improvisation is a must.
In the Shiite slum of Sadr City, a mother pours water over four toddlers squeezed into a tiny plastic wash basin. They scream with glee as the water streams over their faces.
“They love it,” their mother Fadhilah Zghaiyer said.
Some refuge can also be found before the Baghdad’s 11 p.m. curfew in ice-cream shops, some of which have generators. But the constant threat of suicide bombers targeting these shops where security forces mingle with civilians has made even getting a cup of pistachio ice-cream a potentially life-ending gamble.
At the Sea Dog ice-cream shop in eastern Baghdad, dozens have braved the danger for a scoop or two of their favorite flavor.
Customers sit chatting on benches set up outside, and Mohammed’s daughter Noor — her hands sticky from the melting treat — holds a cone with three scoops.
“It’s nice out here, but the generator’s blare disturbs us,” her mother Ameera said.
Retreat from relentless heat
The heavily-fortified Jadriyah Lake complex along the Tigris River’s eastern bank is another retreat filled with restaurants, parks, cafeterias and fish vendors. There is no lack of electricity, but a $2 entrance fee and high prices at restaurants deter many poor families.
But for those who can afford it, the complex offers one of the safest places in the city to escape the heat.
“This is the only isolated and safe place we can go to when we don’t have electricity,” said Maha Abbas, a 39-year-old Iraqi housewife.
The fun ends with nightfall and the approaching curfew — the time when the power usually goes out in many neighborhoods.
For 6-year-old Noor, the outage also brings the frustration of not being able to watch her favorite cartoons on television before bed. It’s a problem here father takes care of by taking her for a ride in the car until she feels drowsy and falls asleep.