Iraqis Win Reprieve from Fees for Missing Services

It's bad enough to have phone lines that have not worked for years. It's worse to get billed for them. In recent weeks, Iraqis have been getting visits from employees of the government phone company handing them large bills for phone service–their first bills in years. In many neighborhoods of Baghdad, landline telephones have not worked since 2003 or earlier (in part explaining the popularity of mobiles). I know two Iraqis who recently got handed bills for more than $1,000 for three years of theoretical service along with threats that liens would be placed on their property if they did not pay.

The government water and electrical companies have followed suit, sending bills for those two derelict public utilities though home meters for both services are rare. Some water company collectors have taken to billing homeowners based on how many bedrooms they have.

Just as frustration was reaching a peak, in stepped Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. He announced this week that the government would cease any fee collections for telephones, water and electricity until the homeowners' consumption could be calculated "in what achieves justice." It's notable that Maliki and other Iraqi politicians are in a contest of giveaways leading up to provincial elections Jan. 31 and this could boost his popularity. Of course, he leads the government that was imposing some of the fees in the first place. And, as American advisers have often urged, making people pay for their services makes sense for weaning a country off its welfare-state habits. But considering the state of these utilities, removing the fees makes more sense right now.

--With Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad