IRAQ: Turn the Lights On

Americans were as wrong about the health of Iraq's infrastructure as they were about their welcome as liberators and the insurgents know that depriving Iraq of power is at least as effective as killing soldiers and policemen.
Publisher Name: 
Newsweek International

Sept. 5, 2005 issue - The political deadlock over a new constitution isn't the only reason Iraqis are nearing a breaking point. From rich businessmen to impoverished farmers, citizens from all walks of life are plagued by a seemingly unsolvable problem: the lack of electricity. Nearly two and a half years after U.S. tanks rolled into Baghdad, the American occupying force and two successive Iraqi governments have struggled to keep the lights on long enough to convince people they are better off now than under Saddam Hussein. They've failed partly because of inefficiency and corruption, but mostly because the Sunni-led insurgency and foreign terrorist cells have made sabotaging the country's power grid as prominent a target as U.S. troops and Iraqi policemen. "The Zarqawi [terrorist] group is targeting the infrastructure to keep pressure on the government," government spokesman Laith Kubba said late last week.

The Americans were as wrong about the health of Iraq's infrastructure as they were about their welcome as liberators. The decay of the country's power generation, transmission and distribution systems dates back to the 1980s-years before crippling U.N. sanctions degraded them further. "The existing power system was a lot worse than initially imagined" just prior to the American invasion, says one U.S. official involved in reconstruction, who was allowed to speak only on background.

Even afterward, says current Electricity Minister Mohsen Shlash, U.S. occupation officials chose to build turbine generators quickly, which unlike thermal generators are not designed to operate 24 hours a day and which -require more maintenance. "Everyone was talking about quick solutions without sizing up the actual problem," he says, calling the American approach "amateurish." U.S. officials counter that they're pursuing a long-term strategy of upgrading transmission networks and personnel as well as building power plants, and that supply, which currently satisfies only 60 percent of demand, could reach 100 percent within three years.

That's a lofty goal. The United States has allocated $5.6 billion for power projects, but more than $1 billion has been redirected to fund security needs, and most of the remaining money has already been spent. "What happened to these billions?" Shlash asks. "Why didn't it make a difference?"

There is some good news. Regions that had received little or no electricity under Saddam are now getting more because of a policy to distribute power equally. But supply hasn't kept up with demand, which has increased by about 25 percent since the invasion, in part because of sales of air conditioners to more-affluent Iraqis. In the Baghdad region, which as one of Saddam's political bases had round-the-clock electricity, the power is on less than eight hours a day. "We've been suffering for nearly three years," says Maysoon Sadeq, 50, a civil servant who lives in the Adhamiya district. "We can't keep any food in the refrigerator. We can't sleep; we go to work exhausted." Lack of power also cripples the country's water and sewage systems. Instead of getting a steady water supply, residents sometimes find brown sludge slinking out of their faucets.

Mounting frustration turned to violence on Aug. 7 in Samawa, some 240 kilometers south of Baghdad, when residents protesting inadequate power and water services rioted outside the governor's office. Senior political leaders say they fear that demonstrations will spread, noting that the inability of local governments to provide essential services only makes the national government look weak.

The insurgency is looking to capitalize on that impression. In mid-July, with power generation at a record high, the insurgents staged coordinated attacks on power plants and transmission lines across the country, knocking out power from Anbar province in northwest Iraq down to Najaf and Karbala in the south. A sinking economy means fewer jobs and salaries-and more opportunities for unrest. That alone could make the battle over a new constitution moot.

With Scott Johnson in Baghdad

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