BAGHDAD – Much of the Iraqi capital was without running water Thursday and had been for at least 24 hours, compounding the urban misery in a war zone and the blistering heat at the height of the Baghdad summer.
Residents and city officials said large sections in the west of the capital had been virtually dry for six days because the already strained electricity grid cannot provide sufficient power to run water purification and pumping stations.
Baghdad routinely suffers from periodic water outages, but this one is described by residents as one of the most extended and widespread in recent memory. The problem highlights the larger difficulties in a capital beset by violence, crumbling infrastructure, rampant crime and too little electricity to keep cool in the sweltering weather more than four years after the U.S.-led invasion.
Jamil Hussein, a 52-year-old retired army officer who lives in northeast Baghdad, said his house has been without water for two weeks, except for two hours at night. He says the water that does flow smells and is unclean.
Two of his children have severe diarrhea that the doctor attributed to drinking what tap water was available, even after it was boiled.
"We'll have to continue drinking it, because we don't have money to buy bottled water," he said.
Adel al-Ardawi, a spokesman for the Baghdad city government, said that even with sufficient electricity "it would take 24 hours for the water mains to refill so we can begin pumping to residents. And even then the water won't be clean for a time. We just don't have the electricity or fuel for our generators to keep the system flowing."
Noah Miller, spokesman for the U.S. reconstruction program in Baghdad, said that water treatment plants were working "as far as we know."
"It could be a host of issues. ... And one of those may be leaky trunk lines. If there's not enough pressure to cancel out that leakage, that's when the water could fail to reach the household," Miller said.
He said that there had been a nationwide power blackout for a few hours Wednesday night that might be causing problems for all systems that depend on Iraq's already creaking electricity grid.
He blamed the outages on provinces north of Baghdad and in Basra in the far south where officials failed to cutback as required when they had taken their daily ration of electricity.
"It takes a long time to bring the power back up (to the grid's capacity and demand)," Miller said.
In the meantime, Iraqis suffer in brutal heat. It was 117 degrees in the capital Thursday, down from 120 the day before. With the power out or crackling through the decrepit system just a few hours each day, even those who can afford air conditioning do not have the power to run it.
Many Baghdad residents have banded together to use power from neighborhood generators, but the cost of fuel and therefore electricity is skyrocketing. Diesel fuel was going for nearly $4 a gallon on Thursday.
As expected in the midst of a water shortage, the cost of purified bottled water has shot up 33 percent. A 10-liter bottle now costs $1.60.
"For us, we can buy bottled water. But I'm thinking about the poor who cannot afford to buy clean water," said Um Zainab, a 44-year-old homemaker in eastern Baghdad. "This shows the weakness and the inefficiency of government officials who are good at only one thing — blaming each other for the problems we are face."
The pace of the mayhem that saw 142 killed or found dead nationwide on Wednesday tapered off Thursday, but a homicide car bomber slammed into an Iraqi police station northeast of Baghdad and killed at least 13 people, police said.
Most of the dead were policemen and recruits lining up outside the station in Hibhib, the same small Sunni town near Baqouba where Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike more than a year ago. The area is considered a stronghold of both Al Qaeda-linked militants and Saddam Hussein loyalists.
Fifteen were wounded in the attack, a police officer said on condition of anonymity out of security concerns.
A total of 58 people were killed or found dead across the country Thursday, according to police and hospital and morgue officials.
The U.S. military announced three more soldier deaths: two killed in a mortar or rocket attack Tuesday, and another killed in a roadside bombing Wednesday. At least 3,659 U.S. military personnel have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. The figure includes seven military civilians.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday he is more optimistic about improvements in Iraqi security than he is about getting legislation passed by the bitterly divided government.
"In some ways we probably all underestimated the depth of the mistrust and how difficult it would be for these guys to come together on legislation," Gates said.
His remarks came as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party asked the country's largest Sunni Arab bloc to reconsider its withdrawal from government to save Iraq's national unity government.
All six Cabinet ministers from the Iraqi Accordance Front quit al-Maliki's Cabinet a day earlier to protest what they called the prime minister's failure to respond to a set of demands.
Among them were the release of security detainees not charged with specific crimes, the disbanding of militias and the participation of all groups represented in the government in dealing with security issues.
Washington has been pushing al-Maliki's government to pass key laws, including measures to share national oil revenues and incorporate some ousted Baathists into mainstream politics. But the Sunni ministers' resignation from the Cabinet — not the parliament — foreshadows even greater difficulty in building consensus when lawmakers return after a monthlong summer recess on Sept. 4.