Iraqis Suffer Through Power Crisis

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The Iraqi government has banned public protests after a series of violent demonstrations over the lack of electricity. Iraq's political parties are still locked in negotiations as they struggle to form a new government. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has said it will take at least two more years for the power situation to improve.


The Iraqi government banned public protests this past week after a series of violent demonstrations over the lack of electricity. As the summer sizzles on, Iraq's political parties are still locked in negotiations as they struggle to form a new government.

But across the Shiite heartland south of Baghdad, people are running out of patience. Many there complain that their region is being ignored. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro traveled to the city of Hillah for this report.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: So we're driving through one of the main streets of the southern city of Hillah and it is completely unpaved. On either side of me are piles of fetid garbage and sewage, signs of the years of neglect that many cities all over the south have suffered.

(Soundbite of goats)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Um Imam(ph) has five children and lives in a mud brick house with a corrugated metal roof. She keeps goats for the local butchers. The animals wander in and out of her home. Her complaints are familiar.

Ms. UM IMAM: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We only have electricity from the national grid for a few hours in the morning, when it's still somewhat cool, she says. And the rest of the day it disappears and we have to keep the windows open all day.

She's so poor that, this month, she had to borrow $14 to pay for access to the neighborhood generator. That generator gives a few hours of extra power but it's hardly enough.

Luman Mizer(ph) also lives in the compound.

Mr. LUMAN MIZER: (Through Translator) Look at us. It's as if we live on the street. In the scorching afternoons, we dont know what to do because of the heat. So we wait till sundown for an end to our misery.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says it's not just the poor who are affected.

Mr. MIZER: (Through Translator) We are from a very humble class, but even the well-educated and the wealthy are suffering as much as we do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Fuad Jassad Mohammad(ph) runs a well-stocked modern supermarket in Hillah. The fridges are filled with cheeses and other perishable items.

Mr. FUAD JASSAD MOHAMMAD (Owner, Supermarket): (Through Translator) During the day, on average, we get six hours of the city grid power. We rely on generators for the rest of the day. To run them, we have to buy our gasoline on the black market. The gas eats up 20 percent of our profits.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Iraq needs at least double the electricity it now produces to meet the demands of its citizens. After eight years of war and billions of dollars in investment, people dont understand why the situation isnt better. There are a number of answers: corruption, an aging power grid, problems with distribution.

Up until now, Iraq's ruling class have been inured from the hardships ordinary Iraqis face. In the wake of the recent protests, Iraq's electricity minister resigned and Iraq's oil minister took over the portfolio.

Two assuage people's anger, Hussain al-Sharistani promised that from now on everyone will be treated equally. Places like Baghdad's Green Zone or the compounds of officials will no longer be given extra power.

Dr. HUSSAIN AL-SHARISTANI (Minister of Oil): (Through Translator) We've started to cut off the national grid power to those areas that had 24-hour electricity, and theyll be treated just like any other neighborhood.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But Iraq's long hot summer is just beginning, and in places like Hillah it's not only electricity thats the problem. Water, roads, sewage, the cell phone network are all dysfunctional. And now that security has improved, people are asking for a better quality of life.

Aqram Hadayer(ph) places his ladder up against an electricity pole that runs cables from the neighborhood generator to people's homes. The generator here feeds about 200 houses. But the generator power will only allow people to run fans and some small appliances. He says he expects more demonstrations.

Mr. AQRAM HADAYER: (Through Translator) Had there been a good supply of city grid electricity, why would people take to the street? Had people been comfortable in their households with air conditioning, why would they demonstrate?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And he notes, this year, the Holy Month of Ramadan falls in the hottest month of August. After fasting all day and coming back to darkened homes, he says, people's anger will only increase.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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