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Water, electricity dearth top tensions among Iraqis, U.S. forces

KUT, Iraq—Hashim Kareem reached down between the rows of wilting sunflowers to grab a handful of earth and let the arid dirt run through his callused fingers. Although his fields run along the banks of the swollen Tigris River, Kareem and his neighbors can't get any water to their crops.

There is no electricity to run their water pumps, and little hope that they will get power any time soon.

Although a charred tank sits on the edge of Kareem's fields, the war barely touched these southern Iraqi farmers. Until now.

"Look at my crops," shouts one of Kareem's neighbors as he points to his stunted wheat fields. "Where are the American promises now?"

With the shooting subsiding and temperatures rising, water—or lack of it—is emerging as a major issue across southern Iraq.

"Water and electricity are the number one issues in the south," said Cassandra Nelson, a spokeswoman for Mercy Corps, a humanitarian aid group setting up offices across Iraq. "No question about it."

Progress has been slow, and erratic. While the taps are working for nearly two-thirds of the residents in Karbala, less than a third of those in nearby Najaf have access to clear water.

The problem is especially pronounced for the region's farmers. Some decided to let their wheat and sunflower fields go fallow this spring because of the war, but those who decided to plant are seeing the dismal results of uncertainty.

Farmers along the Tigris use electricity to power their water pumps and most haven't had electricity since the U.S. invasion in March. Now that the war is fast becoming a distant memory and the American promises of a better life aren't fast materializing, frustration is building.

That fact is not lost on America's military.

"The fight you and I are fighting now is that people will not continue to be patient with us," Lt. Col. Erik Grabowsky, the de facto city manager of Kut, told a hand-picked group of provincial leaders over the weekend. "The people need water, they need fuel, they need electricity."

Despite the steady progress in restoring power, Grabowsky said it could be another month or two before the United States gets electricity back to full force, a timeline that could scuttle the farmers' chances of planting rice in June.

"They must do something soon," said Abdul Al Rahman, a 33-year-old farmer who sells tomatoes, grain and sunflowers in Kut. "It has been one month since the end of the war and nothing has happened."

Without electricity, many markers of progress remain stalled. Shops remain shuttered, schools are half-full and sewage is flowing in the streets. Adding to the problem is a shortage of gasoline that is creating hot-tempered lines of drivers and a lack of propane for kitchens.

On a recent afternoon, dozens of men gathered in downtown Kut to complain about the American occupation.

"If there was electricity, we would all be busy, shops would be open and there would be stability," said Kareem Sarmad Tomaa. "Until then, there will be no stability."

Marine officers understand such frustration, but are urging residents to see the glass not as half-empty, but as half-full.

It was little more than a week ago that Kut appeared to be on the brink of chaos. An audacious local leader, Saeed Abbas, had taken over the government building and declared himself the provincial leader. Rogue gunmen peppered Marine outposts with gunfire at night, and the military was unable to get a handle on widespread looting.

But in a matter of days, the Marines managed to turn things around. They forced Abbas to abandon the government headquarters without firing a shot, imposed a nighttime curfew that eliminated the attacks, and have started paying police officers and other government officials to get back to work.

"I think we've done quite a bit in a short period of time," said Lt. Col. Daniel Kelly, operations manager for the region.

The chaos may have been halted, but many local residents, humanitarian aid workers and even some Marines aren't certain how long the relative quiet will last.

"There's a kettle on the stove right now, and we're on simmer," said Mercy Corps' Nelson. "All it takes is one turn to the left to get it boiling pretty darn fast."


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