Lights on for a lucky few in Baghdad
BAGHDAD, Iraq — Jumping for joy, the 42-year-old mother of three hit the switch and screamed: “Electricity is here!” Up and down the block, neighbors ran outside their houses to cheer and fire weapons in the air.
Baghdad celebrated the beginning of the end Tuesday of a devastating 3-week-old power outage. Still, more than 80 percent of the city remained in darkness — and doctors reported the first suspected cases of cholera and typhoid, with no clean running water yet.
Despite a lack of power, water and phones — in addition to shuttered shops, hours-long lines at gas stations and closed schools — Baghdad’s people on Tuesday showed signs of bouncing back from the U.S. military invasion and the mob pillaging and burning that followed the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
In crowded streets, pickups carrying families returning from wartime havens in the countryside scraped up against trucks ferrying oranges to market.
Some drivers reveled in the once-forbidden act of stopping on Baghdad’s bridges over the Tigris River — coming out of their vehicles to stare down into the lavish riverside palace compounds of Saddam.
U.S. soldiers stood guard at key installations with carnations stuck in their helmets, courtesy of Iraqi children who tore them out of flower beds.
Baghdad residents and the U.S. military have listed power as the capital’s key need. Lights went off in Baghdad in the first week of April as bombs fell and frightened workers abandoned their posts — or simply stayed home to guard them against robbers roaming at will in the darkness.
Residents across Baghdad have left their light switches flipped on for weeks — waiting for electricity to return.
It happened late Monday and Tuesday in some west Baghdad neighborhoods — sending men out in the street firing AK-47s in elation.
“Thank God. We were living in darkness,” said Yosra As’aad, the 42-year-old widow.
As’aad and her oldest son, 18, stayed home for three weeks in fear of robbers, going without sleep to guard their home.
Each day, she measured out tap water for her youngest, a 7-year-old girl, letting it sit so the dirt could fall to the bottom. Without electricity, Baghdad’s water purification plants could not operate.
As’aad greeted the return of electricity by flipping on each switch. Then, with Baghdad’s summer coming, she ran to put bottles of water into the refrigerator.
“Cool water,” she said, appreciatively.
“All of life depends upon electricity. All of life almost stopped,” said baker Wisam Abbas, whose workers hauled loaves of bread out of ovens as light bulbs burned in broad daylight, simply because they could.
“During the bombing we were praying, and now for electricity we were praying,” Mo’taz Khaleil said, strings of bare electric bulbs burning outside his egg shop.
Crews of Iraqi electrical engineers had units at four power plants back up by Tuesday, said Jenan Behnam, chief engineer at Baghdad’s key, southern electric plant.
That left 82 percent of Baghdad’s homes in the dark — including Behnam’s own, he said.
With a bit of luck, a fifth power plant revving up Tuesday would help light up 50 percent of the city by Wednesday, Behnam said.
Transmission lines snapped by shooting and bombing would slow full restoration of power after that, he said, but near-full power still could be just days off.
Wartime damage and confusion largely caused the outage, power workers said: Fighting snapped a fuel line to the key plant, and destroyed the central office that coordinates the electric grid.