Winning Iraqi Hearts and Minds

ANALYSIS: Discontent Surges in Iraq
By HAMZA HENDAWI

BAGHDAD (AP) — In the depths of a strangely cold winter in the Middle East, Iraqis complain that the lights are not on, the kerosene heaters are without fuel and the water doesn’t flow — and they blame the government.

And with the war nearing its fifth anniversary, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is feeling the discontent as well from the most powerful political centers in the majority Shiite community.

It’s a pincer movement of domestic anger that yet again could threaten al-Maliki’s hold on his Green Zone office.

“Where’s the kerosene and the water?” asked Amjad Kazim, a 56-year-old Shiite who lives in eastern Baghdad. “We hear a lot of promises but we see nothing.”

Little kerosene is available on the state-run market at the subsidized price of $0.52 a gallon. But the fuel can be found on the black market, where it goes for more than $3.79 a gallon.

Overnight temperatures since the first of the year have routinely fallen below freezing when normally they only dip into the upper 30s Fahrenheit.

An average household needs at least 1.32 gallons a day to stay warm, which translates into a monthly expense of $150, or half what an average Iraqi earns.

“I have had no electricity for a week, and I cannot afford to buy it from neighborhood generators,” said Hamdiyah Subeih, a 42-year-old homemaker from Baghdad’s Shiite Baladiyat district. “I would rather live in Saddam Hussein’s hell than the paradise of these new leaders.”

Even during the shortages of last summer’s heat, most Iraqi’s were counting on electricity for air conditioners, fans and refrigeration about half the day. Now it’s off for days at a stretch in many areas and on only a few hours daily on average, residents say.

“My children are so happy when the power comes back on they dance,” said Marwan Ouni, a 34-year-old college teacher from Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown north of Baghdad. “For me, the nonstop power cuts have made my life tedious. It’s depressing.”

That’s the view from below, despite a considerable reduction in violence across the country. The view among those who hold power here is growing equally bilious.

Stinging criticism late last week from Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of parliament’s largest Shiite bloc, was a stark break with the past. And a threat by Muqtada al-Sadr, the maverick Shiite cleric who once supported al-Maliki, not to renew an expiring six-month cease-fire he imposed on his feared militia could upend recent security progress.

In admonishing tones, al-Hakim called on the government and parliament not to be “entirely focused on political rivalries at the expense of the everyday problems faced by Iraqis.” He also demanded that lawmakers quickly adopt key legislation divvying up the country’s oil wealth and setting the rules for provincial elections to be held later this year.

He spoke of administrative and financial corruption, saying Iraqis were now forced to pay bribes to get business done with ministries and government agencies.

“It makes one’s heart bleed … it’s a violation of man’s freedom and dignity,” he told tens of thousands of supporters in Baghdad on Friday.

Al-Hakim’s harsh words carry considerable weight because his party, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, is al-Maliki’s most important backer after al-Sadr pulled ministers loyal to him from the Cabinet last year and took his 30 lawmakers out of the Shiite bloc.

Al-Hakim’s focus on the daily hardships of most Iraqis finds a ready audience among those struggling to keep warm through one of the coldest winters in years — it snowed across Baghdad for the first time in living memory on Jan. 11. And al-Sadr’s huge following among more radical Shiites could close the pincer on al-Maliki.

Copyright © 2008 The Associated Press.

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