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IRAQ: Summer in the city

April 28, 2008 | 11:00 am

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When a roadside bomb shattered the rear windows of Mohammed Adhami's Chevy Lumina minivan, he faced a dilemma few outside Baghdad could imagine: Should he spend hundreds of dollars to replace the windows, or should he use his money to fix the car's air conditioner before the unbearable summer heat arrives?

Adhami opted for the A/C, and on a recent spring day, with the temperature already hitting 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 Celsius), he was one of scores of customers at White Palace in downtown Baghdad, an air-conditioning shop for vehicles that becomes one of the busiest spots in the capital as the temperature begins to rise. Transparent nylon could replace the windows, he reasoned, but there's no substitute for good air conditioning.

Welcome to summer in Baghdad, where daytime temperatures can top 120 degrees F (49 C), and where having a car without A/C is not only unthinkable but dangerous. Between the heat, the dust and the dry air, staying cool in the summer is a daily struggle — one that can mean the difference between life and death. It's so bad that many Iraqis, like Abu Ahmed, who don't get enough electricity at home to run an air conditioner, use their cars as safe havens from the horrible heat.

"The heat is unbearable — very, very hot and no electricity," said Ahmed, whose 1991 Oldsmobile was being worked on by White Palace repairmen. "It's not getting any better, and that's why I'm fixing my car. It will be the only place I have some cool weather. The gasoline is expensive, but we have no choice."

As we've explained in past stories, Iraq's energy supply can't keep up with demand, and demand soars in the summer when people who have home air conditioners use them. Most Baghdad residents enjoy only four hours of electricity a day. If they want more, they must run generators, but that means buying fuel to power them.

Hassan Jawad, a 25-year-old college student, said one reason he bought his 1995 Hyundai Elantra is its strong air conditioner. Like Ahmed, he plans to hibernate in the car when it gets too hot to stay in the house.  Ever the planner, he was having White Palace install a whole new A/C system so that he, his wife and their young daughter would be ready when summer arrives.

"Last summer I owned a larger car, and me and my wife used to take our daughter and sit inside the car in the garage, just keeping it idling for hours to enjoy the cool breeze," Jawad said. He worries about his little girl getting dehydrated and says he also becomes exhausted from the heat. "So we leave the house and hide in my car to enjoy the luxury of being cool."

"I paid about $200 to fix my conditioner today, but it's worth every penny," Jawad said.

Adhami, the Chevy driver who escaped the recent bomb blast, was matter of fact about his decision to fix his air conditioner rather than the windows. Asked incredulously why he was getting the A/C repaired when he doesn't even have glass, the 49-year-old truck driver explained that with transparent industrial nylon and adhesive tape, he was able to re-create windows and keep the outside air from blowing into the van.

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That left him the money he needed to ensure he remained cool while driving.

"I don't have the money to fix the glass, but I can pay for the A/C. I'll add some refrigerant to my car and be on my way," Adhami said.

White Palace has been in business in Baghdad since before the war. Even when security is iffy, business remains good, said Ahmed Khudair, the store's owner and an expert in air conditioning repairs. Khudair says he opens White Palace's doors at 8 a.m. and tries to get to every customer before closing at 4 p.m., but invariably there are a handful of people who are left waiting in line and told to come back the next day.

He estimates that there are more than 150 car air conditioning repairmen across Baghdad in scores of shops. "But still, the cars are so many that they have to wait in line to get their turn," he said.

— Caesar Ahmed in Baghdad

Photos: Ahmed Khudair hard at work at his White Palace air conditioning repair shop in Baghdad; Mohammed Adhami's minivan awaits repairs — not to the windows, but to the air conditioning. Credit: Saad Khalaf

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, the war in Iraq and the frictions between the West and Islam. You can subscribe by registering at the website here, logging in here and clicking on the World: Mideast newsletter box here.

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