MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Two elections, a constitutional referendum, a former dictator on trial and a crippling insurgency--2005 has been a historic year in Iraq. NPR's Jamie Tarabay has this look at life in the country and the challenges it faces in 2006.

JAMIE TARABAY reporting:

If there's one sound that typifies Iraq today, it's this.

(Soundbite of generator)

TARABAY: Across Iraq, locked up in metal cages outside homes and roaring well into the night, are generators. Nearly three years after the war, Iraq's electricity woes are unabated.

(Soundbite of generator)

TARABAY: Kasim Hosa(ph) maintains a generator that gives power to 70 houses in one Baghdad neighborhood.

Mr. KASIM HOSA: (Through Translator) This government is making Iraq bad day by day. You can see how things are going. Electricity is zero. Tell me one thing that the people are happy with.

TARABAY: US officials largely measure progress in Iraq in numbers: more than $14 billion spent so far on reconstruction, or, in terms of electricity, the number of kilowatt hours produced by Iraqi power plants. This year, for the first time, US officials say, that number has surpassed prewar levels. The average Iraqi measures progress in numbers, too: how many hours of electricity he gets each day before the lights go out. Right now that's roughly two for every five hours of blackout. So people like Kasim Hosa use their generators to make a little cash. But he has problems, too.

Mr. HOSA: (Through Translator) This radiator need water because we need so much water to cool it down. And the more I operate it, the more water it needs.

TARABAY: Clean water, like electricity, is still hard to come by here. Millions of dollars were spent on treatment plants and refurbished water mains. In some places it's made a difference, but much of the country still faces water shortages. Kasim Hosa says he expected more from the Americans.

Mr. HOSA: (Through Translator) After the war, we said technology, freedom and change would make things better. But we are back to getting water from wells.

TARABAY: For a country rich in natural resources, Iraq still struggles to fulfill domestic demands. Continuous sabotage of pipelines means this country has yet to produce higher levels of oil than when Saddam Hussein was in charge. Today sabotage in northern Iraq halted oil exports. One of the largest refineries in the country shut down because of insurgent threats. Since the Iraqi government relies on oil for nearly all its revenue, any halt creates major problems. Oil has an eager market. Between 60 and 70 percent of its exports this year went to the United States. But to meet local demand, Iraq still has to import gas.

(Soundbite of motor)

TARABAY: The IMF recently arranged for Iraq to forgive nearly $100 billion of its debt. It has to follow a program that includes cutting welfare subsidies and a 150 percent hike in the price of gasoline. People demonstrated against the increase, and the oil minister threatened to quit. Standing at a gas station, taxi driver Tuma Sabir(ph) says his two biggest expenses, gasoline and kerosene, now take away nearly all his daily earnings.

Mr. TUMA SABIR (Taxi Driver): (Through Translator) I've been here for an hour and a half. How will taxi drivers work? My daily income is around 10 US dollars. If I pay $7 for gasoline, how much is left for the kerosene? They've increased everything: gas, good, kerosene. Where is the Iraqi wealth?

TARABAY: The price hikes could not have come at a worse time. Winter is upon Iraq, and practically everyone buys kerosene to fuel lamps and heaters. Economists with the US State Department say one in four Iraqis now live on a dollar a day, what they call the poorest of the poor. Economic advisers here say the economy will improve once investors come, but many entrepreneurs are waiting for peace before they commit.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

TARABAY: Gunfire is another sound that's familiar here. These shots were fired tonight at a police station near the heavily fortified Green Zone. Security is another area where numbers matter, especially to the US military.

Brigadier General DONALD ALSTON: Good afternoon, everybody. Happy holidays.

TARABAY: At a press conference today, Brigadier General Donald Alston, the top US military spokesman in Iraq, showed reporters his numbers.

Brig. Gen. ALSTON: At the start of 2005, Iraqi security forces numbered only a little bit more than 127,000 strong. Could I have the next photo and the next chart please? In just 12 months, we have seen the Iraqi security forces increase 77 percent to a total now--the number's more than 223,000.

TARABAY: But even such optimistic numbers don't matter here. There are still major problems with the Iraqi security forces' performance and training, as demonstrated recently with the discovery of abused detainees. A senior military commander said today on at least one occasion US soldiers had to pull out their guns to stop uniformed Iraqi troops from mistreating an Iraqi prisoner. Fixing all this takes time, says American Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.

Ambassador ZALMAY KHALILZAD: We will work with the Iraqis on a five-year plan, and they're going to have the lead perspective for the Iraqi security forces. That includes the issues of size and equipment for the Iraqi forces.

TARABAY: The US military is quick to point out the number of car bomb attacks has dropped. In April, Baghdad and its suburbs were hit with an average of 20 a week; now the average is six a week. But overall the number of daily attacks, whether by small-arms fire or roadside bomb, is up, and US and Iraqi casualty rates are still high. And there's another goal General Alston admits he has yet to meet.

Brig. Gen. ALSTON: Zarqawi's still out there, and the insurgents still have the same mission: to disrupt the political process, even if it's to be done in the final stages, and discredit the Iraqi government.

TARABAY: The Iraqi government already has enough detractors.

(Soundbite of demonstration)

TARABAY: Across Iraq, Sunni Arabs and supporters of secular slates have come out in protest. In their tens of thousands, they've rejected the early results of Iraq's national elections that give the Shiites and the Kurds, again, most of the votes.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

TARABAY: Sunni political leaders claim the vote was rigged in favor of the ruling alliance. They've demanded the election be investigated, if not run again. Today one of their demands was met. An international team of observers has agreed to come to Iraq to check for fraud. They should arrive here as early as tomorrow. It will be up to the Shiites and the Kurds to find a formula to include Sunnis in any new government. They need to sway the former ruling group to leave behind its insurgency and take part in a political process that will be controlled by the Shiites and the Kurds. And even if they do, it still won't make things easier.

The interim constitution left many key questions unresolved, like the role of Islam and the question of whether the Kurds can claim oil-rich Kirkuk as their own. It'll be months before a new government will even be formed, let alone ready to tackle the major problems facing Iraq. Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

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