BAGHDAD — Iraq's most prominent clerics have ruled that using a water pump on one's own pipes is akin to stealing resources from a neighbor, so what does a person do when it takes half an hour to fill a cooking pot with water from the tap?
Iraqis pray for forgiveness, then pump away.
To them, the real crime is that five years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, they still swelter in the summer and freeze in the winter because of a lack of electricity. Government rations are inevitably late, incomplete or expired. Garbage piles up for days, sometimes weeks, emanating toxic fumes.
The list goes on: black-market fuel, phone bills for land lines that haven't worked in years, education and health-care systems degraded by the flight of thousands of Iraq's best teachers and doctors.
When the Iraqi government announced that 2008 would be "the year of services," workaday Iraqis had their doubts.
"Under Saddam's regime, we had limited salaries but we had security and decent services. Now, we have decent incomes but we lose it all to water, propane, groceries, fuel. We save nothing," said Balqis Kareem, 46, a Sunni Muslim housewife who lives in the predominantly Shiite Muslim district of Karrada. "This government gives with the right hand and takes away with the left."
At Kareem's modest, single-story home, a wall in the living room sprouts a tangle of electrical wires, a reflection of the three power sources she juggles throughout the day: the government's supply, her own small generator and the neighborhood's larger generator. Even so, for five years she hasn't been able to keep milk or meat in the refrigerator for more than a few hours because it spoils so quickly in the daily blackouts.
A kitchen cupboard holds a barely touched box of rationed tea, which Kareem described as "so bitter no amount of sugar can sweeten it." She said that she'd once used a magnet to clean metallic flakes from a bag of government-supplied rice. She barred her four children from drinking tap water after she found worms floating in a glass she'd poured.
The family's home phone rarely works, though earlier this month a worker from the phone company showed up demanding payment for calls that they both knew she hadn't made. Like so many employees of government utilities, he wanted a bribe.
"I just got to the point and told him, 'Don't waste my time. How much do you want?' " Kareem said. "He told me, I paid him and then went on with my day. I'm practical."
As another scorching summer approaches, everyone has to improvise to find electricity. Those who can't afford generators have to grease the meter men to look the other way as they splice wires and steal more than their permitted amount of power. At most, they'll be able to run a TV set, a couple of fluorescent bulbs and maybe the water pump. Of course, that's only when the electricity is on — never more than five hours a day and typically closer to two.
A popular joke here goes that a distraught boy approached his mother and sobbed that his father had touched a live wire and was electrocuted, to which the mother replied, "Thank God! There's electricity!"
When a reporter asked the official spokesman Ali Dabbagh how the Iraqi government could restore faith in its leaders' promises of services, he hung up the phone, offended at the question.
"Anyone who says that solving the services issue will take two or three years is exaggerating. Iraqi cities need years of work and billions of dollars," said Sadiq al Rikabi, a political adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. "The destruction that we inherited, which was increased by terrorism, makes the suffering of Iraqis very difficult. Ending this needs time and effort, but the prime minister is determined to start the work and, God willing, Iraqis will feel the improvement in the coming few months."
Adil Hameed, a senior adviser to the minister of electricity, defended his embattled employer, listing a number of setbacks to power production that range from the devastating looting of a main control center in the early days of the U.S.-led invasion to the shortages in Baghdad caused by populous southern provinces using far more than their allotted share of electricity.
This year's electrical infrastructure-improvement budget of $1.4 billion is half of what it would take to make a dent in the problem, Hameed said. Yet there have been modest gains: a month-old operations room that reports directly to the prime minister, the deployment of U.S. forces to protect electricity facilities and a stepped-up search for international companies to build power plants.
"We're now producing at about 50 percent, but the people get only about 25 percent of their needs because we use nearly half the production to supply Iraqi infrastructure such as hospitals and government departments," Hameed said, adding that he expected outages to increase as usual during the summer.
Increasingly, Iraqis are relying on militias and other armed groups to fill the services void. Stories abound of neighborhood militiamen commandeering power plants and forcing terrified engineers to flip the switches even during government blackouts, turning militants into heroes and further undermining the unpopular Maliki administration.
In some poor areas of Baghdad, militias or Iranian-backed charities have become the main source of propane tanks, food staples, garbage collection and other services that the government should provide.
"They always talk, but nothing is tangible so far," Karam Hussein, 60, a Shiite retiree, said of the government. He lives in Baghdad's Shaab neighborhood, which is mostly under the control of the Mahdi Army militia. "On the contrary, when they talk, things always get worse. It's better if they just stop talking."
In the hardscrabble, mostly Shiite neighborhood of Shohada, 67-year-old Hani Abdel Hussein is desperately trying to sell the family home in hopes of moving to an area with better services. Damage from a stray mortar shell that plunged through the roof isn't the only deterrent for buyers, however.
Trash collection is so sporadic that residents tie up their garbage in plastic bags and fling them onto a reeking pile at the end of the street. Electricity is mainly from a private generator, and water shortages have forced Abdel Hussein to shower at a public bathhouse in another neighborhood.
His land line has been dead for the past three years, though he recently received a bill for about $70.
"If the phone actually worked, I'd be happy to pay today," the soft-spoken father of three said. "I don't believe it's that hard for the government to bring back services. But they had 50 sessions of parliament just to remove the stars from the flag. I guess they're too busy."
(McClatchy special correspondents Laith Hammoudi and Jinan Hussein contributed to this article from Baghdad.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2008