Deep within the Green Zone, the fortified home of Iraq's interim administration, U.S. officials offered an upbeat assessment yesterday of their multibillion-dollar efforts to...

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — Deep within the Green Zone, the fortified home of Iraq’s interim administration, U.S. officials offered an upbeat assessment yesterday of their multibillion-dollar efforts to rebuild the country. Out in the streets of Baghdad, though, it’s a parallel universe.

Twenty months after Saddam Hussein’s removal from power, electricity blinks on and off. Jobs are scarce. The rat-a-tat of automatic gunfire erupts nearly hourly. Criminal kidnappings for ransom have soared. Parents fear to let their children out for long periods, even to go to school.

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Stop just about anyone on the street, and the complaints spill out in torrents.

“The Americans keep saying that they are making things better and better,” said Ali Ayad, 17, a dropout. “If things are getting better, why did I have to leave school to support my family?”

Severe gasoline shortages are further souring the mood in a nation that has some of the largest oil reserves in the world. Lines at gas stations stretch for more than a mile. On the black market, gas sells for 50 times higher than at service stations.

“I’ve been here waiting in this line since yesterday at 9 p.m. — and I’m still waiting,” said Kadhim Juad, a motorist speaking at midafternoon. “I’m risking my life waiting for gasoline because of the security situation.”

At briefings in Baghdad and Washington, Bush administration officials tout their achievements, saying a tidal wave of U.S. aid is finally having an effect on everything from health care and oil production to restoring marshes in southern Iraq. Some of the behind-the-scenes long-term improvements will improve lives for decades, they say.

“Our work in Iraq, for my agency at least, is the largest reconstruction effort we’ve undertaken since the Marshall Plan,” Andrew Natsios, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said recently, referring to the plan for Europe after World War II.

“The Iraqi people are starting to see a difference in their neighborhoods,” Brig. Gen. Thomas Bostick of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said in Baghdad.

By the end of December, Bostick said, Iraqi and U.S. companies will be involved in $4 billion worth of projects, with $2 billion already disbursed.

Some 120 projects have been completed in the oil sector, such as redeveloping existing wells and improving offshore terminals, Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Ross Adkins said. Workers are erecting 57 health clinics and renovating 343 schools. They’re building 14 sewage plants and overhauling railway stations.

In some cases, even when progress is made, Iraqis can’t tell yet.

Take electricity, for example. U.S. money has built 20 power-generating plants, boosting capacity by or nearly 50 percent, Bostick said.

But the existing plants were in such bad shape that Iraqi officials decided to do maintenance on plants with a total capacity of 1,400 megawatts, taking them off line — and temporarily erasing the gains from new plants. Most Iraqis still have power for only a few hours a day, sulking in the dark and watching food rot.

A few Baghdad residents said they noticed improvements.

“They rebuilt some schools and some parks for the children. They take care of the hospitals,” said Bassim Labib, 62, a grocery owner. “But the ordinary people do not feel it, because they want security and electricity.”