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No guarantees

International | IRAQ: Postwar Iraqis are struggling to light their homes and fuel their cars, but few would trade today's hardships for yesterday's dictator

Issue: "Lord of the Rings," Dec. 20, 2003

MUTHAFAR YACOUB IS ONE MAN trying to win against postwar Iraq. Right now that means he has to fight for his lights.

He grabs a box cutter from the coffee table, slices into cable, then splices colored wire, threading each piece quickly into copper conductors for a new plug. A friend sits at his shoulder, holding a penlight above the work. The living room is dark and chilling fast. Shadows trace across the walls from three scattered oil lamps. Mr. Yacoub is eager to have light-and heat on a December night-because he has guests. Outside, other generators whir in the dark, filling the air with gas fumes and homes with something to see by.

Baghdad is promised a full-time electrical grid by next year. In the meantime everyone is sharing not enough power. In Baghdad electricity is at best unpredictable. Some days there is juice all day; others, only a few hours. Today power was promised on a three-hours-on/three-hours-off rotation. But after two hours in the afternoon it quit. Around 7 p.m. it was on again, but at 9 p.m. it went off.

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"Ma fe dhaimaan," Mr. Yacoub declares as he works. "No guarantees."

Eight months after coalition forces took Baghdad and the lights went out, generators persist as a high-demand item. Mr. Yacoub returned to Baghdad from Jordan only a month ago with his wife and two young daughters. They have lived in this walkup only 10 days, but already the frustrations with power outages prompted him to pay $225 for a household generator. At home he discovered that the box had already been opened, and the generator wouldn't start.

He returned to the store. "It's yours now," the owner said. He would give Mr. Yacoub only $100 on return, then Mr. Yacoub had to buy another generator at full price. Back home, its engine sputtered and caught, only for Mr. Yacoub to discover he didn't have the right cable to connect his new power supply to the fuse box. Back to the store he went. And the late night retrofitting began. The cable finished, he yanked the engine to life, flicked a switch inside, and-lights at last.

Like his electricity, Mr. Yacoub and his family are back in Baghdad with fits and starts. Each new day in what U.S. administrator Paul Bremer likes to call "new Iraq" is a surprise, they say, and holds no guarantees.

Sixty percent of Iraqis are out of work, double the number from before the war. Prices in the city are rising. Gasoline is in short supply, sending fuel prices to five times their normal rate. Outside stations, the lines of cars can extend a mile or more. Some drivers wait all day for half a tank. Some will choose instead to buy a liter of fuel at black-market prices-12 times the normal cost-from boys toting fuel from the stations in soda bottles. Customers set an all-time record on Dec. 6 in Baghdad: 670 cars in one gas line.

For a country that has lived through three costly wars and 30 years of dictatorship, the old adage about things getting worse before they get better isn't one Iraqis want to hear.

"Lift up your heads-you are Iraqis," reads a sign in Arabic at the center of Firdos Square, where Iraqis in April triumphantly pulled down a statue of Saddam. Another reads, "The dictator will not be back." But at midpoint between the start of the U.S. invasion and next year's expected handover of sovereignty to a new Iraq provisional government, residents believe they have reason to see more progress in "new Iraq."

For most residents, utilities they had before the war-power, phone service, and water-have not returned at all or return only intermittently. The fuel situation is particularly galling. Iraqis are acutely aware that they sit atop the world's second-largest oil reserve yet cannot power their homes or cars. "We are like a camel who goes hungry while carrying all the food," said Mr. Yacoub.

Mr. Yacoub, a biochemist who once worked in the oil industry, said most Iraqis recognize that it was looters who crippled the oil supply, not U.S. forces. But it's hard to be patient with winter winds blowing and the oil fields not yet fully operational. He knows that insecurity created by Islamic fighters is hampering reconstruction. Still, he thinks the Coalition Provisional Authority should have been ready before the war to do more in the aftermath.

"When they came to change the situation, they should have been ready for the next step," he said. "They should have been ready to supply hospitals and to fix electricity. They should have trained people for security. If they had been ready, they would not have given an opportunity for Islamic parties."

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