Iraqis bemoan lack of services in long, hot summer

BAGHDAD Wed Jul 11, 2007 8:32am EDT

1 of 4. An employee waits for customers in a store selling generators in central Baghdad, July 10, 2007. Generators are very much in demand in Baghdad, with most homes having one or more to ensure a supply of electricity throughout the day.

Credit: Reuters/Mohammed Ameen

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi schoolboy Sarmad Qais sleeps on the roof of his Baghdad home, desperate to escape the stifling heat inside. His family say they have not had electricity for 20 days. Their air-conditioners lie idle.

Qais does not bother to set his alarm clock to wake up for school -- the sound of mortars after dawn are usually enough.

"Having no power and water really annoys me," said 9-year-old Sarmad, speaking outside his home in central Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood, which like almost all Iraqi houses has a flat roof reached by stairs inside.

"I can't shower, I can't watch cartoons and I can't sleep because of the heat and mosquitoes. I wake up most mornings to the sound of explosions and mortars."

Many Iraqis say basic services are at their worst level in decades. More than four years of war has crippled infrastructure while unrelenting violence has hobbled reconstruction efforts.

To make matters worse, summer temperatures can remain above 40 degrees centigrade (104 degrees Fahrenheit) even at night.

Some residents say they get electricity in Baghdad and other provinces for around two hours a day, while water supplies are often cut for days at a time. Motorists sometimes queue for half a day to get petrol.

Taxi driver Mustafa al-Zubaidi said he had spent nine hours moving his car several hundred meters in a slow-moving queue in Baghdad's baking heat to get a tank of petrol.

The fact Iraq has the world's third largest oil reserves adds to his frustration.

"I don't know whether to laugh or cry when I see the situation with fuel in a country that sits on a sea of oil," he said, before edging closer to the petrol station.

The Qais family said they had no idea why they had not had electricity for 20 days. An Electricity Ministry official said it was because cables in their neighborhood needed repair.

But sleeping on the roof is not without risks.

A mortar round killed seven members of one family in the Sunni neighborhood of Fadhil in Baghdad last week as they slept on their roof. The dead included a couple and their four children, aged 9 to 17, police said.

"I had known them for more than 15 years. Suddenly this happened, they were killed in this horrible way," said Abu Ahmed, a neighbor. "It's so sad."

FUEL PIPELINE A "SIEVE"

Iraqi officials could not be reached to give details on electricity generation and water supplies.

But the Washington-based Brookings Institution, which compiles data on Iraq, said the average daily supply of electricity in Baghdad in May was 5.6 hours, compared to an estimated 16-24 hours before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

At a parliamentary hearing on Monday both the oil and the electricity ministers sought to explain the problems behind the current shortages of basic services.

Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani told lawmakers that acts of sabotage by insurgents and people drilling holes in fuel pipelines to steal refined oil products were a major reason for petrol shortages.

"In just one stretch of pipeline between Baghdad and Baiji, we found 1,488 holes," he said, referring to a key pipeline running from a refinery in the city of Baiji, 180 km (112 mile) south to the capital. "It doesn't function as a pipeline ... it's more like a sieve."

Electricity Minister Karim Waheed said systematic sabotage was to blame for the crisis in his ministry as well lengthy bureaucracy in releasing funds for new projects and maintenance.

It is a vicious cycle.

Officials at the Baghdad municipality say water cannot be purified and pumped without power. The Electricity Ministry says part of its problem is a lack of fuel to operate power stations while the Oil Ministry says a lack of electricity greatly increases demand for fuel for small generators at home.

Lamia Hasan, a mother of three, says her family are counting the days to October and November, when the weather cools.

"No one can stand the heat. My children don't understand why they can't watch television or sleep at night," Hasan said.

"We are not greedy, we gave up on the hope of living like the rest of the world long ago ... all we want is the luxury of water and a good night sleep."

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