It was supposed to be a happy-talk news briefing by an Army general about progress in rebuilding Iraq. It turned into a cry of woe about the disintegration of the supply of electricity to Baghdad.

The briefing, as reported by The New York Times, led to questions to Karim Wahid, a respected Iraqi official, who told reporters that a key reason why there are only two to six hours of electricity in Baghdad on any given day is that armed militia groups now control electric dispatch centers and refuse to share power.

Instead of the national electric grid that Iraq had before the 2003 U.S. invasion and that was subsequently destroyed by looters, power plants around Iraq now are controlled by local groups that willfully deny power to central Iraq and other parts of the country, according to Wahid.

Iraq’s electric problems after Saddam Hussein was toppled have been known for some time. But the United States has spent millions of dollars to repair the system since then. And now, it turns out, almost for naught.

A capital city without reliable electricity is a demoralized city. When the U.S. East Coast lost power during a massive blackout one August afternoon in 2003, the chaos and lost productivity were stunning. The fact that the war in Iraq, which has now lasted longer than World War II or the Civil War, has resulted in a country that still has no reliable basic services is appalling.

The daytime temperature in Baghdad is averaging over 110 degrees this month.

The sporadic bursts of electricity mean that soldiers in their hot uniforms and Iraqi citizens are sweltering without air conditioning, without fans, without ice or without cold water.

This inability to rebuild Iraq becomes more significant as we wait for the report of Gen. David Petraeus on Sept. 15 on whether the “surge” of troops is working. Many think that the White House will massage whatever he says — probably that violence is decreasing and that if we just stay the course, pull some troops out of the most secure areas and rearrange them elsewhere while perhaps taking a few thousand others out of Iraq, we’ll be on the right road.

The White House artificially made September a crucial month in the war because of the Petraeus report. But it is also when the quarrelsome Iraqi parliament returns from its month off. (It was just too hot to stay in the city, especially since no serious work toward reuniting the divided country was being done.)

Democrats in Congress are eager for battle, with some prepared to push for an immediate troop pullout. No matter how detailed (or how credible) the Petraeus report is, another emotional, inconclusive debate will break out in the United States over what we are trying to accomplish in Iraq and what is realistically possible.

President Bush’s latest defense of the mess he has created by putting incompetent Pentagon civilian bureaucrats in charge of Iraq was to cite Vietnam as a lesson.

This is quite strange. Bush has been arguing for years that the quagmire that was Vietnam is not comparable to the quagmire that is Iraq. Now he says if the United States had continued fighting in Vietnam, there would have been less bloodshed there and in neighboring Cambodia. (He did not offer an opinion on how the United States could have achieved victory in Vietnam. He did not suggest that we need a tax increase to pay for staying in Iraq. He did not say that we need a draft to bolster our rapidly depleting military forces.)

His analogy has left many historians open-mouthed in disbelief.

Come September, Bush argues, Americans must resist the “allure of retreat” and ignore calls to leave Iraq before true civil war breaks out. But no total U.S. withdrawal will happen anytime soon because the generals fear the all-out chaos that would ensue.

Iraq has become a shell game, where U.S. soldiers are moved around according to which political machinations are seen to be most advantageous at the time. Staying means more deaths. Leaving means more deaths.

If we had acted to keep the lights on in Baghdad when we had the chance, we would be much better off. Now we have 162,000 hot, weary American soldiers in danger in Iraq and no clue on how to get them home anytime soon or even how to turn the air conditioning back on. And we have an increasingly well-deserved reputation that we don’t know what we’re doing.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)

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