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Baghdad residents want electricity restored

BAGHDAD, Iraq—For the past few weeks, U.S. officials in Baghdad have trumpeted a series of military sweeps and arrests of former Saddam Hussein allies as bringing them closer to a stable Iraq.

But just outside the walls of the former Republican Palace and a nearby convention center, the two main points of operation for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, most people don't seem to care.

They have other things to worry about: electricity, food, water and not getting shot by American troops or Iraqi looters.

Their comments aren't necessarily indicative of the nation as a whole, but the disconnect between the optimism of coalition officials and the dour, angry mood of many Baghdad residents is striking.

Even after the capture of Gen. Abid Hamid Mahmud al Tikriti, the third most powerful man in Saddam's regime, many in Baghdad were far more concerned about getting basic services than whether Mahmud might know if their former ruler is dead or alive.

Residents say the lack of services and jobs is ratcheting up the bloody unrest. A U.S. medic was killed and two soldiers were injured Thursday in a rocket-propelled grenade attack on a military ambulance in a town just south of Baghdad, al Iskandariyah. The death marked the third day in a row that a U.S. soldier was killed in or around Baghdad.

American officials are pinning a lot of hopes on nabbing Saddam or proving he was killed during the war. L. Paul Bremer, the top administrator in Baghdad, said earlier this week that resolving the Saddam question would help quell the anxiety of many Iraqis. Col. Guy Shields, an Army spokesman for coalition headquarters, said Thursday that Saddam "ruled this place with an iron fist, intimidation, and there are still scars there, there is still fear."

Most Iraqis would agree that Saddam was a tyrant. But for now, most conversation in Baghdad is about electricity, or the lack thereof.

Residents say it's hard to care about speculation about Saddam or the remnants of his Baath Party when one has no air conditioning—or old water-cooled fans in most cases—and it is 120 degrees outside. Homes in Baghdad are like ovens under the noonday sun. And the city's water-treatment plants are on the electric grid, so when the bulbs go dim in a Baghdad neighborhood, the faucets soon go dry.

"It is so hot in my house, we take off our clothes and stay naked," said Rahad Ashur, a retired policeman. "The most important thing is bringing back the electricity. After that, they can catch Saddam Hussein because they will have friends everywhere."

Baghdad is getting some 1,300 megawatts of electricity a day, compared with 2,000 or more before the war, based on the estimates of officials in the occupation authority. And it's delivered unevenly. Some parts of Baghdad got 20 hours of electricity Thursday; others had just two or three hours.

Officials in charge of Iraq's reconstruction say the problem is twofold: The city's electrical grid depends on a hodgepodge of equipment from different countries dating to the 1950s, and there are no reliable plans for the system on paper; Also, electrical lines, transformers and power plants have been damaged by war and looting.

Most Iraqis don't care why there isn't enough electricity. They just want it.

Standing in front of a teahouse near central Baghdad, Rahim Hasim said the Americans should spend more time on restoring his electricity.

"Since Saddam fell, how long has it been? The Americans are always looking for him," said Hasim, who is struggling to keep his bookbindery operation in business. "But for three months we are without government, everyone is jobless. What did America bring for us?"

All around him, men played dominoes and cards, sweating under a thatch roof and bemoaning the lack of jobs and city services.

Adeeb Gorgus listened to Hasim for a while and then began waving his arms in the air in anger.

"The area where the Americans are has electricity. They have electricity, but we have none," said Gorgus, referring to the convention center and Republican Palace, which have backup generators. "It makes me so mad, I want to burn them down."


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

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