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Frustrated Iraqis destroying water pipes

BASRA, Iraq—Next to a toppled statue of Saddam Hussein on a white stallion, Iraq's future is inside a tiny manhole, drawing milky water from a pipe cracked open with a large boulder.

"We're drinking it just like it is," said Majid Yousef, 14, as he filled a white gas-can. Eight people in his family will depend on his find, and tomorrow he'll be back on the streets again.

"This is my job every day," said a smiling Yousef, standing in the mud, his black hair glistening in the sun.

All across southern Iraq, people are on a quest for water, but they don't have to be, Western aid officials say. Even as water plants are repaired and British troops chaperone water trucks in neighborhoods, Iraqis are confounding aid workers by shattering water pipes with rocks and Kalashnikov rifles.

"If people stopped breaking pipes for five or six days, the system is back," said Andres Kruesi, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in southern Iraq.

The acts of sabotage reflect a deep, collective frustration in the new Iraq, aid workers say. Most Iraqis have high expectations that the U.S.-led coalition will improve their lives. But so far, they have seen few signs of improvement.

Security is a major concern, even with armed British soldiers patrolling streets. Electricity is patchy, and telephone service has returned only to some neighborhoods. Lines for cooking fuel, handed out by aid agencies, snake around city blocks.

"Life is getting worse," said Abbas Hussein, 27, a taxi driver. "There's no progress being done. We were expecting changes after Saddam."

And with no civil administration, there's infighting in the Water Department and other municipal government agencies between technocrats perceived as too close to Saddam's Baath regime and those who were sidelined by the old regime.

"You have to give them a sense of where they are going, what their future is going to look like," Kruesi said. "Otherwise, there will be political haggling for power. This is what we're getting now and it's paralyzing the system.

"In one way or the other, it is up to the occupying powers to take care of their subjects," he added.

Even before the war, the water system in Basra was aging and inundated by the city's population growth. A fragile network of pipes webbed the city, sandwiched between two salt-water waterways, the Shaat al-Arab and the Shaat al-Basra.

But during and after the 26-day conflict, vital transformers and other key parts from electricity plants that fuel water pumps and water plants were stolen or taken for safekeeping. Workers could not cross front lines to maintain a central water treatment plant that desalinates water.

Some smaller water treatment plants and water tanks were damaged by coalition fire or were sabotaged by fleeing Iraqi troops and Baath party officials, said plant workers and British military commanders.

Today, nearly three weeks after British forces entered Basra, about 60 percent of residents are getting undrinkable tap water, still below original levels. British forces are trucking almost 120,000 gallons of water each day into the city.

It's not enough. Hussein, the taxi driver, said that even before the war he had to buy drinking water. Now the price has tripled.

Many challenges remain. On a recent day, Jabbar Hussein Al-Haidary, the chief engineer of the Basra Department of Water, visited several rural water treatment plants south of Basra.

In the town of Abu Khasib, residents were donating fuel to run the plant's generators. But most plants had no such help. Some had only one motor running; others had damaged electric wires and broken-down chlorine purifying systems.

"We're drinking water from the river," lamented Hamid Khalif, who was near a plant that had been damaged by a mine planted by fleeing Iraqi troops.

Al-Haidary also poses a challenge. During the war, he braved artillery shells to cross the front lines to try to fix the central water treatment plant. Today, he's working for free while waiting for the next municipal government to reorganize the Basra Water Department and pay salaries.

Al-Haidary says he'll fight if the director of the department comes back. He says his old boss was a senior Baathist official who put him in jail for six months for moonlighting on another job.

"I don't like him, and he dislikes me," Al-Haidary said. "He should step down."

This week, the central water treatment plant reopened, providing another 106,000 gallons of water. But success rests on the number of pipes that are not broken in upcoming days.

British military officials and aid workers say they are sending the word not to break pipes, and in some communities self-policing is taking place.

"We certainly don't have the sufficient manpower to guard every piece of pipe in a city the size of Brussels," said Col. Chris Vernon, a spokesman for the British forces.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-BASRA