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[casi] Blackouts Return, Deepening Iraq's Dark Days

An interesting article. Although the routine line (ensuring
publication?) is to blame SH & the Baath Government there is enough
information for the observant reader to wonder whether they have been
told the whole story.

Some things missing from the article:

1)              how good the power facilities actually were in Iraq (pre the
first Gulf War). Many westerners assume that Gaza conditions are the
norm for all Arabs.
2)              the full extent of the damage done by the US & UK in the first
Gulf War. The damage was so severe and of such a permanent nature
that US officials at the time were reduced to trying to pretend that
it was not intentional to go that far.
3)              the deliberate policy of the US & UK through the secretive 661
Sanctions Committee to prevent and delay spare parts for and
upgrading of Iraq's civilian infrastructure including electricity
generation and distribution.
4)              how well the Iraqis had done in the face of 2) & 3) above to
produce what they were before the most recent war

Of course, the 4 points above also apply to water, sewage, transport,
the national health service, agriculture, education, oil production

Have the US & UK governments had to account to anyone for 2) & 3)

Iraqis old enough to remember what life was like, saw how in a few
weeks their country was ruined. Some have expected the US (& UK) with
their fantastic resources (and acting to help the Iraqi people) to
restore things in a similar time frame!

Lack of Steady Electricity Is Biggest Obstacle to Reconstruction,
Officials Say

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 3, 2003; Page A01

BAGHDAD, July 2 -- Two months after Iraqis fired AK-47s into the
night sky to celebrate the resumption of electrical service,
crippling blackouts have returned to the capital and the rest of the
country, impeding the restoration of public order and economic
activity, and creating a new focus of anger at the U.S. occupation.

In Baghdad, a vast city of high-rise buildings, bustling markets and
scorching summer temperatures, most residents received more than 20
hours of electricity a day before the war -- enough to run elevators,
air conditioners and other staples of modern life. Today, the capital
got about eight hours of power. On Tuesday, it was even less. And for
a few days last week, there was none.

The persistent blackouts -- U.S. and Iraqi specialists blame
sabotage, looting, war damage and the failure of old equipment --
have transformed a city that once was regarded as the most advanced
in the Arab world to a place of pre-industrial privation where
shopkeepers hawk their wares on the sidewalk, housewives store food
in iceboxes and families sleep outdoors.

The lack of steady electricity is regarded by several U.S. and Iraqi
officials as the most significant obstacle in the reconstruction of
this city and country.

"Power is the central issue," a senior U.S. official here said.
"Without it, you don't have security. You don't have an economy. You
don't have trust in what we're doing. What you do have is more anger,
more frustration, more violence. We're not going to solve anything
here until we first find a way to get more electricity to the

On Baghdad's streets, the blackouts are fueling a growing nostalgia
for former president Saddam Hussein among people who only weeks ago
cheered the fall of his government and welcomed the arrival of U.S.
troops. "We figured the Americans, who are a superpower, would at
least give us electricity," said Mehdi Abdulwahid, an unemployed oil
engineer who now helps a friend sell drinks on a busy sidewalk. "Now
we wish we had the old times back."

Hussein, Abdulwahid said with a sigh, "was a ruthless man, but at
least we had the basics of life. How can we care about democracy now
when we don't even have electricity?"

U.S. and Iraqi electricity specialists said the country's power
problems start with a lack of investment in generating capacity and
maintenance during the 35 years that the Baath Party government was
in power. After the U.N. Security Council imposed economic sanctions
on Iraq in response to Hussein's decision to invade Kuwait in 1990,
spending on the electrical infrastructure -- and the flow of much-
needed spare parts -- was further curtailed.

Although Iraq's power plants were designed to produce about 7,800
megawatts of electricity, they were able to provide only about 4,500
megawatts last year because of chronic breakdowns and lingering
damage from the 1991 Persian Gulf War. "It was a very fragile and
unstable system," said Maj. Gen. Carl A. Strock, the director of
operations for the U.S. occupation authority.

Even before this year's war, when demand was about 6,000 megawatts,
power outages were part of daily life. But Hussein's government
managed the shortfall -- and played favorites. Neighborhoods were
informed when they would be subjected to rolling blackouts. Baghdad,
Tikrit and other cities where Hussein enjoyed strong support received
a disproportionate share of power, while towns in Shiite-dominated
southern Iraq got far less.

"Saddam understood the importance of electricity," said Jamil Salman,
a electrician in Baghdad. "The Americans don't."

During the war, the lights remained on in Baghdad for the first two
weeks before flickering off across the capital on the night of April
3. U.S. military officials say they did not target power plants and
distribution networks as they did in 1991, but they acknowledged that
accidental damage from air or artillery strikes toppled several high-
voltage transmission towers, disrupting the national electrical grid
and causing the blackout.

To Iraqi electrical officials, that explanation sounds fishy. They
contend transmission towers leading to Baghdad were knocked down in a
synchronized way, suggesting a deliberate effort to disrupt power
supplies. "It was a perfect plan," said a senior official with the
national electricity commission.

After the war, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which was given
responsibility for restoring the electrical infrastructure,
discovered that doing so was not as simple as fixing a few pylons.
Looters had made away with crucial spare parts from several plants.
There was no fuel for oil-fired units because the country's
refineries were not working. The startup of some facilities required
an initial boost of outside power, which was nonexistent.

Finally, by late April, U.S. and Iraqi engineers were able to start
resuscitating power plants and lights began to dot Baghdad's skyline.
By early last month, the plants were generating about 3,100
megawatts, about 1,300 of which were being sent to the capital. It
was about half of the city's demand -- enough for shops to open,
street lights to operate, air conditioners to hum and life to start
returning to normal.

Then the next round of trouble began. Looters ripped down
transmission wires to steal the aluminum and copper. Old power
plants, which missed their annual spring maintenance because of the
war, chugged to a halt. Sizzling summer temperatures caused a drop in
the transmission system's efficiency. People bought large numbers of
air conditioners and television sets, placing new strain on the

And most significantly, saboteurs believed to be loyal to Hussein
started to attack the system by felling towers and cutting lines.
U.S. officials here would not detail the number of cases of sabotage
to the electrical infrastructure other than to call them significant.

In the most recent case, gunmen shot at high-voltage cables about 25
miles south of the city of Samarra, causing the wires to break and a
nearby tower to keel over, said Peter Gibson, a Corps of Engineers
employee who is serving as the occupation authority's senior adviser
to the national electricity commission.

The attack severed a vital line that connects power plants in
northern Iraq with Baghdad, triggering a chain reaction that
destabilized the national grid and shut down other plants. The
incident led to a two-day blackout in Baghdad last week and a
continuing reduction of power coming into the city.

"Our biggest problem is sabotage," Gibson said.

On Monday, the capital had just 400 megawatts to distribute. By
Tuesday, the supply had fallen further, prompting the city's power
distribution director to order that only hospitals, water plants and
sewage treatment facilities be given electricity. Finally, on Tuesday
night, technicians completed repairs to the broken line near Samarra,
which helped raise the city's distribution to 800 megawatts today,
Iraqi officials said.

U.S. officials say they are increasing output as fast they can, but
they maintain there is not much they can do in the short run except
fine-tune plants and try to defend installations against looters and
saboteurs. Building new power stations would take months, if not
years. Trucking in dozens of generators, even super-size ones, also
could take months and would not be enough to meet the country's
needs, they said.

Ordinary Iraqis, however, find it difficult to believe that the U.S.
military cannot keep the lights on all the time. "They brought
thousands of tanks to kill us," said Bessam Mahmoud, a shopkeeper who
sells packaged biscuits and candy on the sidewalk when the power is
out. "Why can't they bring in generators or people to fix the power
plants? If they wanted to, they could."

In Baghdad, the prevailing view on the street is that there is more
than enough power to go around but the Americans are refusing to
share it with Iraqis until attacks on U.S. troops cease. "They're
trying to trade peace for electricity," said Hamid Mohsen, the owner
of a small stationery store. "They're trying to tell us that if we
don't give them peace, they won't give us power."

Such sentiments have prompted some irate Iraqis to storm into power
substations and distribution centers with handguns and rifles to
demand their lights be turned back on. On Tuesday alone, three power
facilities faced armed attacks, including one where an assailant
fired -- and missed -- three times at an electricity commission
employee, Iraqi officials said.

At the Farabi dispatch control center in eastern Baghdad, a pistol-
toting man burst into the computer room, grabbed an employee and
threatened to kill him the following day if power was not restored to
the man's neighborhood, said Thaer Kassim, a technical operator at
the center. The employee subsequently announced that he was quitting,
Kassim said.

"He said, 'I don't need this kind of job,' " Kassim said.

When his boss came to visit later in the day, Kassim made it clear he
was ready to leave too. "Either you bring in security and protect me
or I'll go home," he said. "I want to do my job, but I need

At the country's central power control center, the director, Adil
Hamid Mehdi, already has left. He has been hiding at home after
repeated death threats, co-workers said.

The Farabi center has only two guards -- Iraqis armed with AK-47s who
have received one day of training from the U.S. military. Kassim said
he wants U.S. troops to stand guard. "Just give me two soldiers," he
said. "That's all we need."

But Strock said it was unlikely the military, which already is
stretched thin battling a growing resistance movement, would dispatch
more soldiers to power facilities. Instead, he said more Iraqi guards
would be trained and maintenance efforts would be intensified to
increase power output, which he hopes will reach 4,000 megawatts
nationwide by the end of the month.

Officials here said the situation could get worse before it improves.
Dozens of large factories idled since the end of the war need to be
started over the next few weeks.

The top U.S. civil administrator of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, is studying
proposals to shift resources to factories and likely will make a
decision in the next few weeks, Gibson said. Consumers in Baghdad
"could see a decrease in the number of hours they have power," he
said, but in exchange they would receive a schedule of blackouts.

Iraqi electricity specialists acknowledge there is no quick fix. "I
wish there was something the Americans could do to solve this problem
right away, but that is not possible," said Nafa Abdulsada, Baghdad's
power-distribution director. "We will have to live like this for a
while -- and it will be very dangerous."

 2003 The Washington Post Company
Mark Parkinson

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