In the tightknit Kemp al Arman section of central Baghdad, there are often just two hours of electricity a day. Many families have been forgoing meat for more than a month, water only trickles from the taps, and garbage is piling up knee-deep on the street corners.
Gunfire rattles through the night, tormenting residents who cannot sleep because of the heat that builds up inside their mud and concrete homes during Baghdad’s notorious heat waves. In years past, they would have slept on their roofs. But the danger of stray bullets eliminates that option.
One poor-to-middling neighborhood dotted with car workshops does not a country make, but Kemp al Arman is by no means unique. Across much of Iraq, the sense of desperation that has grown in more than six weeks of U.S. occupation is reaching crisis proportions.
The hope for better times that greeted the demise of President Saddam Hussein’s regime and the expectation that a country as powerful and efficient as the United States would quickly restore order have not been fulfilled.
Much of the blame is falling on the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, the U.S. civil administration in Iraq. Experts now fear that its failures could threaten the transition to an interim Iraqi government by causing a catastrophic erosion of public confidence and increased demands for the U.S. to get out altogether.
Senior officials within ORHA describe the upcoming handover to new Iraqi authorities as one of their most important challenges.
Under the current transition formula, the occupation authorities, together with a variety of Iraqi groups and individuals, will select about 300 delegates to a conference that will set the future course of the country. It will choose an interim governing authority, draw up a constitution, reform the legal system and, over a year or two, prepare the country for free elections.
American officials insist that the conference can succeed only if it is put together carefully, assuring it is broadly representative of all Iraqi political strains.
But the chaos and disillusionment of the early weeks of American control have weakened that argument. Some political parties are complaining that the U.S. is taking too long to set up an interim government that has real powers to address Iraq’s many problems. The top U.S. diplomat in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, says it can be formed no sooner than July.
“It is politicians, or the politically minded, who are unhappy about being without a government,” said one analyst, Baghdad University political science professor Wamidh Nadhmi.
But the clamoring for a new interim government could spread to the wider population soon unless conditions improve, he said. Already, “the majority of the people are extremely unhappy because of the lack of services and the lack of security,” he noted.
The Kemp al Arman district is a case in point.
Residents say they do not really know what the Americans are doing or what they plan. For most, any contact with the Americans comes only when the helmeted, flak-jacketed Army troops periodically rumble through their narrow streets, smiling at the children, or when the troops are guarding the local filling station where the line of vehicles waiting for gasoline may snake for half a mile.
Meanwhile, cupboards go bare and cash reserves dwindle, leaving residents frustrated and resentful that the U.S. appointees are failing in what Iraqis see as any authority’s minimum tasks: providing security, electricity and water, paying state salaries and ensuring an adequate supply of food.
Sattah Jabaar Kadhim, 45, a mechanic, said that he and his wife, Hanaan, and their eight children are barely coping without the food rations that Hussein’s government used to provide. Kadhim earns about $3 a day and must pay $50 a month in rent on their three-room hovel, which is furnished with three broken chairs. The rest of the money goes for food, which has become more expensive since the war. The family’s breakfast consists of tomatoes and bread that Hanaan makes herself in a rooftop oven. (She has to scavenge for wood to burn because the price of propane has tripled.) Dinner is often the same -- bread and tomatoes -- and they have not had meat in months, he said.
“We don’t see anything from the Americans,” he said. “They just talk on, saying we are going to do this or that -- and nothing.”
Still, he says he is willing to give the U.S. a little more time, and he acknowledges that the shooting and looting sprees have begun to diminish thanks to a more aggressive stance by troops in recent days.
Nevertheless, evidence of tension is growing. A draft memorandum that seven leading political groups plan to present to U.S. authorities in the next few days demands an immediate end to American political control. It accuses the U.S. officials of a “systematic stripping of sovereignty from the Iraqi people.”
“You knock on any door in Baghdad and they will tell you they want a government,” said Bahaa Mayah, a member of the Iraqi National Congress. “I don’t think the Americans realize this because they are talking of more than a month [more]. That’s not good enough. It should have happened yesterday.”
Three of the seven parties -- including the INC -- owe their existences as political players in post-Hussein Iraq largely to earlier U.S. support.
The lack of essential services and the diminishing quality of life also appear to have strengthened support for Shiite Muslim conservatives, some of whom already are organizing anti-U.S. protests. In some cases, Shiite imams are distributing charity and organizing cleanups, casting themselves as the group most concerned about the plight of ordinary people and trying to build support for an Islamic government.
At ORHA, officials acknowledge that they failed to manage Iraqis’ expectations, which they claim were so high initially that they would have been impossible to meet even if all had run smoothly.
“Basically, Jay lacked the understanding of the need to work with the media that could get to the Iraqi people,” noted one official, referring to retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, who led the civil occupation before being abruptly replaced this month by Bremer. “Getting up the coalition media operation was a slow process. It should have been a much higher priority.”
The ORHA media center went through its first weeks taking calls from the outside world on satellite telephones that worked only outdoors.
ORHA’s efforts also have been complicated by security demands that restrict movement and an array of reconstruction challenges far more complex than anyone involved in the occupation imagined. A television station capable of transmitting ORHA news and edicts began operating this month, but with most homes in the capital getting only a couple of hours a day of electricity, the impact is limited.
The result of all this is a growing perception among Iraqis that the American occupation authorities are either in over their heads or are deliberately allowing the chaos to continue to justify a long-term presence in the country.
Adding to its sense of isolation, ORHA has chosen to operate from Hussein’s Republican Palace compound, which is in the center of Baghdad but completely cut off from the city. To reach the offices of Bremer or any of his senior advisors, a visitor must pass through a stiff security check at the imposing main gates, then drive or walk about three-quarters of a mile to another set of security checks.
Mayah of the INC is one of many Iraqis who failed to complete the obstacle course.
Having made his way to the second security gate a few minutes early to meet with ORHA senior advisor Stephen Browning, Mayah waited. Because there is no telephone contact between the security gate and the building, there was no way to inform Browning’s office that his visitor had arrived. The soldier at the gate declined to carry a message inside and after 20 minutes in the open-air oven of a Baghdad afternoon, Mayah left.
A senior ORHA official who declined to be named made no effort to fend off the accusation that U.S. occupation officials were isolated. “The charge is true,” he said.
He said that it might have been possible to compensate for abysmal communications by more frequent trips, but a lack of vehicles and strict security rules requiring armed escorts make that very difficult.
Early last week, Bremer abruptly canceled the second day of a two-day trip to northern Iraq that had included a planned visit to Irbil and Kirkuk. In those two cities, he was likely to encounter angry refugees and squatters battling over property lost as a result of Hussein’s efforts to push out Kurds and other ethnic groups.
In the absence of any legal authority, U.S. troops have prevented returning refugees, mostly Kurds, from trying to take back property at gunpoint -- a move that the Kurdish leadership sees as encouraging those occupying others’ homes.
Kirkuk, Iraq’s most important oil city, has been roiled by nightly clashes between returning Kurds and Arab squatters. Three men died in the street last Sunday, including a Kurdish political leader who had sought to calm the tensions.
Bremer’s visit had been eagerly awaited by Kurdish leaders who say they feel sidelined in the postwar recovery planning. Air Force Lt. Col. Jennifer Cassidy, an ORHA spokeswoman, said Bremer cut the visit short because of pressing business in Baghdad.
The northern enclave’s reconstruction and development minister, Nasreen Mustafa Sadiq, had planned to raise the displacement issue with Bremer and had hoped to offer Kurdistan’s expertise in getting public services and the economy running during the last 12 years.
Like other Kurdish leaders, she criticized the delays in organizing an interim government and restoring basic services.
“I don’t see any postwar program,” she said. “Perhaps the war finished quicker than everyone expected, but they were planning this war for a year.”
Times staff writers John Hendren and Azadeh Moaveni in Baghdad and Carol J. Williams in Irbil contributed to this report.