RAMADI, IRAQ—There's a perpetual debate among grunts here about which film best captures the true nature of the war in Iraq, including Jarhead (about the first Gulf War), the HBO series Generation Kill, or classics like Apocalypse Now, but the most appropriate one for many of the marines out here in Sunni-dominated Anbar province may be Groundhog Day. That's the one where comedian Bill Murray's character is doomed to repeat the same day over and over and over again.
And that's what the marines from the 2-9 Weapons Company feel like every four days when they roll up to the gates of the Ramadi water treatment facility. It provides fresh water to the entire city, and its operation is critical to preventing outbreaks of diseases like cholera. There are several generators on-site to keep the pumps running—a fact not lost on the neighboring residents, who have only a few hours of city power per day.
Sgt. D'Artagnan Wood, 30, knows full well what he'll find even before he strides past the slump-shouldered Iraqi guards on post outside the gates. Wood walks through the water treatment building, littered with dusty old machine parts and chlorine tanks, until he arrives at the power-generating control panel.
The veteran marine pries it open with the flat edge of his knife and curses. A fistful of multicolored wires has been connected to the power nodes, siphoning off juice from the water pumps.
It's hardly clandestine thievery. A 1-inch-thick cable runs directly from the power box, along the floor and out a smoky, glassed window. One of the policemen disconnects the offending wire from the node as Wood yanks up the cable and follows it out the open window.
It runs across 100 yards of field through a 10-foot-tall cinder-block wall into the home of one of the local Iraqi police commanders. His large, lit house is directly adjacent to the plant.
Every few days, the marines return to the site, severing and collecting the wires. Perhaps hours later, the guards whisper, the police chief's sons return with a spool of cable to connect a new line, tipping the guards a few Iraqi dinars for their trouble.
The existing generators at the plant are more than sufficient to power the pumps, but they consistently perform below full capacity because of the illegal tapping. It's the same problem for the generators at a nearby hospital.
The marines have arranged for three more generators—about the size of a small bus—to be placed in the neighborhoods around the plant. It's one of the last infrastructure investments that the United States is slated to make here. And the Iraqis will be in charge of their upkeep and fueling.
Under Saddam Hussein's regime, Iraqis had no power meters on their homes and were not required to pay for the watts they used. Instituting pay-for-power schemes around the country has proved difficult, and many Iraqi power lines have a spider web of illegal taps connected to them.
Capt. Dallas Shaw, commander of the 2-9 Weapons Company, recently told a group of Ramadi leaders that they're now in charge of raising money to fuel and repair the new generators. "This is it," he told them. "You are responsible for this and for keeping the illegal taps off the water treatment plant and the hospital."
The councilors nod enthusiastically, promising Shaw that the illegal tapping will end. So, too, did the guards at the treatment plant, assuring Sergeant Wood the previous day that never again would they accept bribes to hook up illegal wires.
"I hear you," Wood tells the guards. "But I'll be back in a few days to disconnect them when they get put back in."
Groundhog Day, indeed.