BAGHDAD — Dark humor flips on when the lights go out in a city that still suffers from crippling power outages despite the billions of dollars that have been invested in its grid.
"Electricity is dead. Pray for its soul," reads graffiti scrawled along a wall in central Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood.
"I miss electricity so much I want to feel an electric shock, just so I know we have it," said Falah Hasan Ali, 23, a resident of Baghdad's Sadr City district who sleeps on his roof to escape the nighttime heat.
Electricity long has been a benchmark for reconstruction success in Iraq. Even as American troops have withdrawn from Iraqi cities and there's talk of a faster U.S. pullout from the country, however, electricity remains elusive for millions of Baghdad residents.
Data provided by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad show that electricity availability has increased about 20 percent compared with last August. Most Baghdad residents have power for less than eight hours a day, however, while summer temperatures regularly climb to 110 degrees.
This summer has come with its own setbacks. Seven power lines have been sabotaged, and sandstorms caused malfunctions in natural gas-burning generating plants. Power shortfalls also occurred when Kuwait held up fuel deliveries and Iranian power lines that feed Iraq went down.
Little relief is on the immediate horizon. The best hope comes in the form of two major contracts — one with General Electric and one with Siemens — that promise to double Iraq's electric generating capacity by sometime in 2011. Together, the contracts are expected to cost Iraq more than $5 billion.
"We will have extra production," boasted Raad al Haris, a senior deputy minister in Iraqi's Electricity Ministry.
That's good news, but it doesn't keep Iraqis from asking what happened to the billions of dollars that Americans and Iraqis already have spent to boost the country's power capacity.
Much of the money simply went unspent. A report last year from the U.S. Government Accountability Office revealed that the Iraqi Electricity Ministry had spent only about 14 percent — $411 million — of the $2.8 billion the government had budgeted for capital projects.
The poor results had Iraqis protesting in the streets of Baghdad on Wednesday, demanding that Electricity Minister Karim Wahid step down from office.
Ahmed al Masoudi, a lawmaker who's on the parliament's public services committee, said that most of the money had gone to small projects and maintenance. It wasn't until security improved last year, he said, that big companies such as GE and Siemens were willing to undertake the kind of work that would deliver new turbines and plants.
Still, Haris said, the country is spending only $1 billion a year on electricity, far less than the $4 billion that the Electricity Ministry has requested.
The government supplies only 60 percent of the electricity that Iraqis demand, he said.
Iraqis fill the gap with a mix of schemes that can cost as much a third of their incomes. Those options include small generators that can power basic appliances, which cost $40 to $50 a month to fuel, to large neighborhood generators run by private residents, who charge as much as $150 a month.
Mohammed Nawfal of west Baghdad, 36, is paying $200 a month for electricity this summer. His neighborhood often gets as little as five hours of electricity each day.
"I can't see my two kids suffering the entire day because of the hot weather," he said. "The electricity situation is miserable. ... For the last seven weeks, I've been paying an extra $40 each week for buying fuel from the black market."
Ali, the student from Sadr City, can't afford that. He spends two hours a day cooling his nephews with a plastic hand fan he bought when his family stopped using its private generator. His father works in a bus station, earning barely enough to cover their necessities.
The owners of private generators say they're just passing on fuel costs. They say they can't buy enough from the government at official prices and wind up paying black-market sources.
"I use 1,000 liters of gasoline for my generators," about 265 gallons per day, said Asaad al Wazzan, who powers 220 homes with two generators in the tony Karrada neighborhood. "The fuel that the government gives me can be enough for only 15 days. For the rest of the month, I have to buy the rest from the black market, which costs me a fortune."
The electricity shortage is good business for Mohammed Issa, 49, who sells small generators that cost $150 to $630. The cheaper models sell better, but Issa said they didn't last.
His customers "know the generators are poor quality ones, but they have no other choices," Issa said
Abu Haider, 60, visited Issa to buy his third generator since the American-led invasion six years ago. Haider tried to bargain, but he couldn't get Issa to go below $160.
It'll complement a share of a large generator he gets for $40 a month. Even with the new source of electricity, however, Haider plans to sleep outside.
"If I sleep inside the house, I have to turn on the generator, which means extra fuel expenses that I cannot bear," he said.
(Hammoudi is a McClatchy special correspondent. Adam Ashton of The Modesto (Calif.) Bee contributed to this report.)
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