Washington As the Bush administration struggles to convince lawmakers that its Iraq war strategy is working, it has stopped reporting to Congress a key quality-of-life indicator in Baghdad: how long the power stays on.
Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that Baghdad residents could count on only "an hour or two a day" of electricity. That's down from an average of five to six hours a day earlier this year.
But that piece of data has not been sent to lawmakers for months because the State Department, which prepares a weekly "status report" for Congress on conditions in Iraq, stopped estimating in May how many hours of electricity Baghdad residents receive each day.
Instead, the department now reports on the electricity generated nationwide, a measurement that does not indicate how much power Iraqis in Baghdad or elsewhere actually receive.
The change, a State Department spokesman said, reflects a technical decision by reconstruction officials in Baghdad who are scaling back efforts to estimate electricity consumption as they wind down U.S. involvement in rebuilding Iraq's power grid.
Department officials said the new approach was more accurate than the previous estimates, which they said had been very rough and had failed to reflect wide variations across Baghdad and the country.
"Nothing is being hidden. There is no ulterior motive," said David Foley, the department's Middle East spokesman. "We are continuing to provide detailed information and have been completely transparent."
The State Department's new method shows that the national electricity supply is 4 percent lower than a year ago, according to the July 11 report.
The reporting change has triggered criticism that the administration is disclosing less information at the same time President Bush is facing off against Congress over how much progress is being made in Iraq. Bush has been working for months to show that the troop buildup he announced in January is stabilizing the country.
"It's unfortunate," said Jason H. Campbell, a senior research assistant at the Brookings Institution who has been tracking quality-of-life measurements in Iraq since 2003. "What makes this metric even worth tracking is you want to see what's happening to the average Iraqi."
Campbell said the new reporting method made it impossible to know what the power situation was in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who sharply questioned Crocker about electricity during a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, sent a letter to the State Department last week complaining about the new measurement. She said she was concerned the White House was trying to obscure the deteriorating situation in Baghdad, the focus of Bush's "surge" of 30,000 additional troops.
"Very disturbingly, the president continues to keep information away from the American people and the Congress," said Boxer, who advocates withdrawing troops. "It's obvious that he wants to paint a rosy picture. He wants to continue this war and fool the American people."
State Department officials in Baghdad and Washington said the new method was not an attempt to hide information. They noted that Crocker was candid about the electricity situation when he testified to lawmakers last week.
In the spring, the State Department reported that Baghdad residents were typically receiving up to six hours of electricity a day. In the rest of the country, Iraqis could count on 10 or 11 hours.
But the situation has deteriorated substantially as stifling heat has set in. Temperatures in Baghdad are now reaching above 110.
Around Baghdad, the lack of electricity fuels anger and frustration. "I can't believe that a country occupied by great America cannot find a quick temporary solution," said Faleh Ridha Ubaidi, a builder in east Baghdad. "Electricity is never cut in the Green Zone or to political party headquarters .... The rest of the people can go to hell."