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Iraq: Electricity Cuts An Ongoing Headache For Baghdad Residents

Several times a day, residents of the Iraqi capital Baghdad experience electricity cuts. Blackouts have been a fact of life in Baghdad since the U.S.-led war to oust Saddam Hussein. But officials say the current power cuts are tied to efforts to overhaul the entire energy grid and that a full-time supply of electricity is soon to be restored. For the time being, however, Baghdadis rely on gasoline-powered generators during the frequent blackouts. But even that can be a problem: Most gas stations will service cars, but not people looking to fill individual gas canisters.

Baghdad, 19 November 2003 (RFE/RL) � After nearly eight months of off-and-on power, Baghdad's 5.5 million residents are losing patience.

But Imad al-Ani, an Iraqi deputy minister dealing with energy supply issues, says Baghdadis and Iraqis elsewhere must steel themselves for a few more months of discomfort.

�We know the Iraqi people are tired of our demands to ration electricity. An Iraqi citizen has the right to have a continuous electricity supply and with God�s help it will be resolved next year with money coming,� al-Ani said.

Al-Ani says it is already theoretically possible to supply Iraq with electricity full-time. But power outages are still necessary to allow time for repairs to the country's outdated power generators and electrical grid.

The Iraqi officials say they are currently taking advantage of cooler temperatures, when Iraqis are less dependent on air conditioners, to speed the repair work. Iraq is currently meeting 60 percent of its regular electricity needs.

That is little comfort to Iraqis who say the continued blackouts prove the Coalition Provisional Authority is not able to rule the country as effectively as Saddam Hussein, who restored electricity just weeks after the 1991 Gulf War.

But al-Ani points out that while Hussein restored power in Baghdad, he did it at the expense of the rest of the country. For more than a decade, he says, many Iraqis lived with just several hours of power a day. Part of the difficulty engineers face now is correcting the effect of years of neglect under the Hussein regime.

In many Baghdad hotels, restaurants, and homes, lights still burn 24 hours a day. Iraqis are compensating for the frequent blackouts with gasoline-powered electrical generators. This is a minor inconvenience for hotels and other large businesses that can afford to keep significant supplies of gas on hand. But individual citizens say the practice has opened the door to corruption and bribes.

The problem comes from an official Iraqi ban on filling gas canisters. Muhammad Abas Rabya, the manager of a gas station in central Baghdad, explains, "Selling petrol in canisters will cause problems that we don't need. God forbid, it will set a fire -- and it is very hard to extinguish those fires. The petrol stations are not equipped to control those fires."

Rabya says there are several gas stations in the Iraqi capital whose sole business is selling gasoline to customers with canisters. When people come to his station looking to buy small amounts of gas, he sends them there.

But some Iraqis say such vendors are using the special demand for gas to turn a profit. Salim says he has often failed to have his canister filled until he pays a bribe.

"[They are selling] from under the table," Salim said. "You go there and they sell you a canister for more than the official price. If a liter is 50 dinars, he might charge you 60 or 70."

Even worse, Salim says, black-market dealers often buy gasoline from the special dealers and sell it at an even higher price elsewhere in the city. He says the simplest solution is to bribe an employee at a regular gas station.

He might be right. Though nearly every station carries warnings that people filling canisters will be jailed, most customers find it easy to buy the gas they need.

Even the station run by Rabya is doing roaring trade in canister sales. On a weekday afternoon, the business is literally swarming with Iraqis carrying individual canisters. Rabya watches as the illicit trade is conducted before his eyes. But he says nothing and does nothing to stop it.

RFE/RL asked Imad, a worker at the gas station, why he agrees to fill canisters when it is clearly illegal. Imad is quick to admit that he accepts bribes in exchange for filling the canisters and is not going to stop.

"Yes, yes. We sell gasoline [in canisters.] What's wrong with taking another 250-dinar [bribe?]. Do you have a canister or should I give you a canister?" Imad asked.

Many Iraqis find other ways to get gas for their generators, by siphoning fuel from their car tanks. Omar, an accountant at Baghdad University, says he uses a hose to suck gas from his car tank. "I have a constant taste of gasoline in my mouth," says Omar, who is in his seventies. "That's why I hate these electricity cuts so much."