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Paralysed City

By Patrick Cockburn in Baghdad

22 June 2003

As temperatures reached a scorching 45C (113F) in Baghdad last week people in al-Thawra, a sprawling working-class slum, unearthed hidden rifles and threatened to kill the manager of the local electrical sub-station if he did not resume power supplies.

"Some had guns and others threw stones at us, but I told them this was just a sub- station and we aren't receiving any electricity," said Bassim Arman, the harassed-looking manager. "Now I have to close down anyway, because employees are too frightened to come to work."

Electricity is vital to life in the Iraqi capital where the temperature can soar as high as 60C (140F) at the height of summer. Without it there is no air-conditioning, no refrigerators to prevent food rotting and no light in a city terrified by looters. The failure to get the electrical system working has become a symbol for Iraqis in the capital of the general failure of the American occupation to provide living conditions even at the miserable level they enjoyed under Saddam Hussein.

Asked about Baghdad's lack of electricity at an air-conditioned press conference, Paul Bremer, the American head of the occupation authority, looking cool in a dark suit and quiet purple tie, simply asserted that, with a few exceptions, Baghdad was now receiving 20 hours of electricity a day. "It simply isn't true," said one Iraqi, shaking his head in disbelief after listening to Mr Bremer. "Everybody in Baghdad knows it."

Few Iraqis mourn the fall of Saddam but there is a growing, at times almost visceral, hatred of the occupation. "They can take our oil, but at least they should let us have electricity and water," said Tha'ar Abdul Qader, a worker at the Central Teaching Hospital for Children, the main door of which can only be entered by walking through a fast-flowing stream of raw sewage.

Attacks on American troops are still sporadic and not organised centrally, but when one American soldier was shot dead and another wounded by gunmen in a passing car near al-Doura power station, passers-by unanimously said they approved of the attack.

Even the few Iraqis who have joined the Coalition Provisional Authority under Mr Bremer - which operates out of Saddam Hussein's heavily fortified Republican Palace in the centre of the capital - describe the American officials administering Iraq as "living in an air-conditioned fantasy world".

At a meeting on Thursday between Mr Bremer and some 60 Iraqi political leaders, formerly the opposition to Saddam, Mahmoud Othman, a highly respected veteran Kurdish politician, bluntly suggested that the American army pull out of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities to camps in the countryside.

"I told Bremer that Baghdad was a paralysed city," said Mr Othman. "He and his staff don't really know what it is like, because if they go out at all, it is in air-conditioned cars. But I've walked the streets, and I know what it is like. They are ill-informed and ill-advised."

Only 15 minutes' walk from Mr Bremer's office Shamsedin Mansour, a poor shopkeeper in an alleyway off al-Rashid street, gave a bleak picture of how he and his neighbours live. "We have had no electricity for six days," he said. "Many of our people are suffering from heart problems because of the heat. We live with as many as 42 people in a house and do not have the money to buy even a small generator. Without light at night it is easy for gangs of thieves with guns to take over the streets, and the shooting keeps us awake. If we try to protect ourselves with arms, the Americans arrest us."

The problem for the US administration is that it largely operates without any help from Iraqis, because it allowed the Iraqi state to dissolve after the war. American soldiers man checkpoints, their heavy armoured vehicles blocking the road, and search for arms. But Iraqis simply drive around them through the side streets. Even if the soldiers checked identity cards or passports this would not be very useful, since a fully stamped Iraqi passport can be bought illegally for $50. Many blank passports were stolen by looters at the end of the war, together with the requisite stamps.

The obvious solution for the US is to set up an Iraqi provisional administration, operating under ultimate American control. But attractive though this might be, it would also mean ceding some power to Iraqis, something Mr Bremer is loath to do. Hoshyar Zebari, a leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, says that ultimately the US will be forced to allow an Iraqi provisional government of real authority, "because their present course - occupation by America alone - won't be successful".

The main reason why Washington does not want to give up any power is the fear that this would ultimately open the way for a takeover by Iraq's Shia Muslims, who account for at least 55 per cent of the population and would probably win any free elections. Just outside the Mansour Melia hotel on the Tigris in Baghdad yesterday, a Shia religious leader in turban and dark clerical clothes called Sheikh Ahmad al-Zirzawi al-Baghdadi was leading several hundred demonstrators to Mr Bremer's headquarters. "We are not asking for American troops to withdraw, just free elections and the release of our leaders whom they have arrested," he said.

But for President George Bush it would be deeply damaging if, in an election year, the successors to Saddam Hussein in Iraq turned out to be Islamic religious parties with possible links to Iran.