Anna Badkhen / San Francisco Chronicle – 2006-05-24 06:26:51
BAGHDAD (May 24, 2006) — “Leaving aside security,” Kassim the carpet salesman asked rhetorically, “when you come home, what do you need?” He ticked off the answers on the fingers on his right hand: “Electricity. Water. Food.”
“Getting any of this in Baghdad is a problem,” he said.
The Iraqi Shiite’s elegant, two-story house in the busy central Baghdad district of Karrada gets power four hours a day — “one hour on, six hours off,” said Kassim, a divorced father of three.
Running water is available for one hour, between 1 and 2 in the morning. Kassim pours the water into giant plastic jugs he stores in his bathroom, kitchen and on the rooftop.
“It’s a good thing that I go to bed late,” he said.
Three years after the U.S. invasion, during which most of the Iraqi capital’s infrastructure collapsed, rudimentary services here remain sporadic at best.
Decades-old water treatment plants that were supposed to have been fixed during postwar reconstruction meet only 60 percent of Baghdad’s needs, said Lt. Col. Chris Hall, whose unit, attached to the 101st Airborne Division, is helping Iraqis rebuild power and water facilities.
Garbage chokes the city of 4.5 million people. Trash collection is erratic or nonexistent, depending on which part of the city you live in. Insurgents use heaps of garbage to hide roadside bombs. More than 300 garbage collectors have been killed in Baghdad in the past six months, city officials say. Insurgents target them because they work for the government.
“Once we hoped to plant gardens in the medians and on street corners; now we throw our garbage there,” said a Sunni woman who lives in the affluent western Jihad district. (The Chronicle agreed not to identify the woman and other Iraqis interviewed for this story because they feared for their safety.)
Garbage clogs sewage pipes, causing raw sewage to overflow into the streets and fill the air with the stench of decay. In the Shiite slums of Sadr City in northeastern Baghdad, residents live in dwellings made of bits of corrugated metal, chunks of concrete and rusted oil canisters. Snowy white egrets skim the surface of putrid, greenish-black pools of sewage in the streets.
While much of the violence in Baghdad has taken place in the western part of the city, Sadr City is not immune. Five people were killed there Tuesday when a car bomb exploded at the entrance to a police station.
“It was a horrible scene,” Hussein Abdul-Hady, a 20-year-old student, told the Los Angeles Times. “Bodies without hands; people were running in chaos, screaming.”
Throughout the city, scores of gas stations have shut down after suicide bombers began targeting them. Outside stations still open, lines of cars stretch sometimes for more than a mile, waiting for gasoline that has quadrupled in price since before the invasion.
Food, for those who can afford it, is plentiful, but shopping is a risky endeavor. Many shop owners have shut their stores, fearing they would be targeted by religious militias who stage brazen daytime kidnappings and killings for no apparent reason other than their victims’ religious roots. Others have joined the mass exodus of Baghdad residents who have moved out of the city to flee the endemic violence.
The Sunni woman from Jihad said her brother and husband take turns driving her to shop for food in Mansur, a Sunni neighborhood to the south, because she considers it safer than Jihad.
Kassim said he crosses the street when he sees any car approach the Bab-e-Sharji market, where he buys the rugs he resells, mostly to American soldiers on one of the U.S. military bases in Baghdad.
“What if it’s a bomb?” he asked. “You can’t trust anyone in Iraq today.”
In the predominantly Shiite, largely poverty-stricken eastern Baghdad, religious leaders like the firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr feed off the popular disenchantment with the collapsed infrastructure, using it to draw support for their militias, said Col. Tom Vail, commander of the 506th Regimental Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division, which patrols this area.
“They get their power from the deprivation on the east side of Baghdad,” said Vail, whose combat team controls most of eastern Baghdad. “They want to show that all good things come from Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia and all the bad things come from the (U.S.-led) coalition.”
U.S. and Iraqi officials say al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and militias loyal to other Shiite clerics have infiltrated the national police. Some of the militias — although no one has pointed specifically at al-Sadr’s — are operating death squads, contributing to the sectarian violence that has swept the country since the Feb. 22 bombing of the Shiite Askariya Shrine in Samarra. Dozens of black funeral banners draped on walls and windowsills around the capital mark the toll of violence.
Lt. Col. Hall hopes the new Iraqi government will help improve matters.
“Since the ministries have been seated, I’ve seen a greater willingness to partner with the coalition on these issues,” Hall said. He said a multibillion-dollar project to repair sewage facilities in Baghdad is under way, and U.S. forces are working on creating power stations in the capital.
But the combination of fear of being associated with an American-led effort, and militant Shiite leaders’ attempts to portray it as a failure, complicates reconstruction plans, which have already been plagued by poor security and mismanagement, U.S. military officials say.
Several weeks ago, according to U.S. soldiers, Mahdi Army members cordoned off a medical clinic U.S. contractors were building in Sadr City after U.S. forces said they would not put a marble facade on the structure.
“They would rather have no clinic at all than a U.S.-built clinic that looked like all the other buildings in Baghdad,” said 2nd Lt. Jesse Augustine, 24, a civil affairs officer from St. Nazianz, Wis., who is attached to the 4th Brigade Support Troops Battalion of the 506th Regimental Combat Team.
“Any signs of (our) effectiveness would fly in the face of their propaganda,” said another civil affairs officer, Capt. Tom Dieirlein, 38, from New York.
On Tuesday, Augustine and Dieirlein were inspecting one of the projects U.S. forces are helping rebuild: the two-story Tamuz clinic in the heart of Sadr City.
Two Iraqi workers were slowly applying a fresh coat of white paint on a first-floor wall, and the marble stairs to the second floor glistened in the bright afternoon sun. Outside the clinic, in the streets where remnants of food rotted in blue and orange plastic bags, impoverished residents piled out of the dilapidated stucco houses to gawk at the Americans.
As the soldiers were leaving, they tossed some peach-colored beanie bears and a blue-and-white soccer ball to the children who had gathered outside.
An elderly woman in a black abaya cloak stretched out her hands toward the humvees, pleadingly, as though a child’s toy could make her life in Baghdad easier.
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