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[casi] US Engineers in Baghdad 9/25

Crossed Wires Deprived Iraqis of Electric Power
War Plans Ignored Worn Infrastructure

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 25, 2003; Page A01

BAGHDAD -- When grease-stained technicians at the Baghdad South power plant
needed spare parts recently, they first submitted a written request to
Bechtel Corp., the engineering firm given more than $1 billion in U.S.
government contracts to fix Iraq's decrepit infrastructure

Then they went to the junkyard.

They scoured piles of industrial detritus for abandoned items that could be
jury-rigged into the geriatric plant, such as the hydraulic pump from a
bulldozer that was used to restart a broken water condenser.

"Of course we'd like new parts," sighed Ahmed Ali Shihab, the senior
operations engineer. But he said repeated appeals to Bechtel and the U.S.
military had not yielded any significant new equipment. "All we have
received from them are promises," he said.

Although U.S. officials said the requests for new parts were beyond the
scope of Bechtel's contract, the failure to get much-needed equipment to
Baghdad South more than five months after the first reconstruction teams
arrived here illustrates the dearth of planning, funding and coordination
that has fettered the overall American effort to rehabilitate Iraq.

With new parts, Shihab said, Baghdad South could increase its output by 90
megawatts -- enough to light about 90,000 more homes in the capital, where a
severe electricity shortage is causing blackouts every few hours and
generating widespread frustration with the U.S. occupation. Instead, the
plant limps along, its 1960s-era turbines eking out less than half as much
power as they should because of extensive steam and fuel leaks.

The problems at Baghdad South helped to convince the Bush administration
this summer that its initial strategy to repair the electric system -- which
called for Bechtel to spend $230 million on emergency repairs and
international donors to fund the construction of new plants -- was not
working. Donors were offering only minimal financial support. Looting and
sabotage were rampant. The country's power plants were in need of far more
than $230 million in stopgap work.   With electricity production still below
prewar levels -- it is enough to meet only little more than half the
national demand -- the administration has shifted gears and asked Congress
to devote $5.7 billion to a comprehensive effort to resuscitate Iraq's power

"Restoring Iraq's electricity is vital to our mission here," said L. Paul
Bremer, the U.S. civil administrator of Iraq.

"It's hard to exaggerate the impact of three decades of crippling
under-investment by Saddam Hussein in Iraq's infrastructure," Bremer said in
a recent interview. "He spent his nation's money building palaces and
weapons and his army, not funding the things people need to survive."

But several American and Iraqi specialists contend the U.S. occupation
authority has been slow to address the problem. Immediately after Hussein's
government fell, they maintain, more money and attention should have been
focused on buying spare parts and trucking in large, gas-powered generating
units that can each power as many as 40,000 homes. Doing so, they insist,
would have reduced the frequency of blackouts and the anger that
crystallized toward the occupation.

"If they had recognized the problem sooner and devoted more resources to it,
the problem wouldn't be as bad as it is now," said an American electrical
engineer who works with the occupation authority and spoke on condition of
anonymity. "Iraqis would have seen a real improvement in their lives."
Instead, he said, "we still have problems like Baghdad South."

Toll of Bombing, Sanctions

Built along the meandering Tigris River in 1959, Baghdad South has been a
metaphor for Iraq's prosperity and poverty.

Its four German-made, steam-powered generating units initially provided more
than enough electricity to meet the capital's needs. As demand increased,
Iraq turned in 1965 to the United States, acquiring two additional units
from General Electric Co. The plant's six towering smokestacks were symbols
of the country's oil wealth.

"Back then, we were the most advanced power plant in the Arab world," said
Bashir Khallaf, the director of Baghdad South.

 In 1983, before Hussein's war with neighboring Iran had drained the
national coffers, the four German generating units were replaced with ones
from G.E., handing more business to the United States, which was supporting
Iraq in the war. At the time, Khallaf said, the plant never had to operate
at its 350-megawatt capacity. The country's electricity supply was almost
double its demand.

All that changed in 1991. The plant sputtered to a halt after being hit by
six U.S. bombs during the Persian Gulf War. American bombing during the war
damaged about 75 percent of the country's power-generating capacity,
according to U.N. assessments.   But Khallaf and other workers brought
Baghdad South back to life four months later using plentiful spare parts in
its warehouse.

After the war, U.N. economic sanctions prevented Iraq from ordering new
parts from G.E. As equipment broke, it either was not fixed or was replaced
with makeshift devices. With power in increasingly short supply, government
officials prevented the plant from shutting down for annual maintenance. The
once-modern facility gradually became a collection of leaky pipes, broken
gauges and ramshackle devices.

In 1996, Iraq struck a deal with the United Nations whereby it could sell
its oil and use the revenues for the purchase of humanitarian supplies,
including equipment for power plants. But the sanctions effectively
prohibited the import of parts that had potential military applications,
such as chlorine to purify water going into steam turbine units, further
degrading the electricity system.

By this January, Baghdad South was barely able to produce 185 megawatts.
"We were like an old man losing his energy," Khallaf said.

U.S. officials insist that in the months before the Iraq war, the signs of
trouble were impossible to see. "This was a closed-off, Stalinist society,"
one U.S. official here said. "We knew there were repairs that were needed,
but we had no idea just how bad things were."

But some Iraqi and American specialists contend the warnings were apparent.
The U.N. Development Program -- which oversaw the importation of electrical
parts under the oil-for-food program -- produced extensive reports detailing
problems in the power sector. One public U.N. document issued last year
noted that Iraq's generating units were "technically and economically
obsolete," resulting in a 2,500-megawatt nationwide power shortage and
lengthy blackouts.

Estimates from Iraqi exiles participating in a State Department planning
program for a post-Hussein government suggested that power-sector repairs
would cost as much as $18 billion. Yet the Bush administration's initial
reconstruction plan called for devoting just $230 million of a $680 million
Bechtel contract to electricity system repairs. "The telltale signs were
there," said the American electrical engineer. "But either because of sheer
carelessness or because the [U.S.] government didn't want to reveal how
expensive it would be, there was massive under-planning."

Blackout in Baghdad

Then came the American invasion.

For the first two weeks of the war, the plant chugged along as normal. But
at 8 p.m. on April 3, after particularly intense bombing on Baghdad's
outskirts and as columns of U.S. tanks were nearing the airport, the
high-voltage lines that are supposed to carry electricity from the plant
instead delivered a massive surge, forcing an automatic shutdown, Khallaf

The same thing happened to every other plant in central Iraq, plunging the
capital into darkness and panic.  For weeks, nobody -- not U.S. military
engineers, not Iraq technicians -- had any idea what happened. Did Hussein
order the lights out? Did the Americans bomb a power station?

U.S. and Iraqi engineers now believe what happened was that during the
fighting around the airport, a loop of high-voltage lines encircling Baghdad
was accidentally severed, causing the power grid to become imbalanced and
sending surges to every plant on the network.

With no idea what prompted the problem and with fighting raging around the
capital, Khallaf and other employees decided to go home. They returned to
work April 12, three days after Baghdad fell, to find a contingent of
Marines hunkered down at the plant.

A day later, officers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers arrived at the
plant. When they walked around and saw broken pipes, frayed wires and the
computer-less control room, where the antiquated dials are the size of wall
clocks, they were amazed and worried.

"When I first looked around, I said, 'Holy moly. This is not good,' "
recalled Lt. Col. John Comparetto, the Army's chief electrical engineer in
Iraq. "I hoped it was an isolated incident. But it wasn't true. It was

It was then, Comparetto said, that he understood the war planning had been
far too optimistic. "We were underestimating how bad it was, no doubt about
it," he said.

With no power on the national grid, he and Khallaf realized it would be
impossible to quickly restart Baghdad South. Electrical plants, like cars,
need power to start. Baghdad South required about 8 megawatts, far more than
the capacity of the Army's largest portable generator.

The Army eventually came up with a solution: Divert power from a
hydroelectric station, one of the few generating facilities in operation.

Two weeks later, Baghdad South was running again. But its output would go no
higher than 160 megawatts.

Once other plants started, they faced the same problem. The shock of the
sudden shutdown, the lack of spring maintenance because of the war and
general fatigue made an already ailing system even sicker. Although Iraqi
and American engineers turned on as many units as they could, they could not
get overall national output above 3,500 megawatts -- well below the 4,400
megawatts produced before the war or the 6,500 megawatts needed to satisfy
the nation's demand.

Andrew Bearpark, the occupation authority's director of operations, likened
the system to a dilapidated car that could no longer reach its top speed.
"If you leave it unused for a month, it will drive even slower, or not at
all," he said.

A Change in Plans

For three months after Hussein's government fell, the occupation authority
stuck to its prewar power plan.

The Army engineers allowed Iraqi managers and technicians to resume control
of their facilities. Bechtel conducted emergency repairs and the renovation
of a few generating units around the country. Other needs, such as spare
parts for Baghdad South, would have to be purchased by Iraq's electricity
commission, a government body responsible for managing power plants and the
transmission network.

 Bremer and Bearpark hoped electricity production would gradually increase
to prewar levels by the end of July. But as the summer began, it became
clear that goal was unattainable and that the occupation authority needed a
new plan.

They concluded the $230 million Bechtel had been given was not enough to
make the necessary repairs. At Baghdad South, for instance, Bechtel provided
chemicals to treat water in the steam turbines because it was deemed an
emergency issue, but the company lacked funds to buy spare parts for the
plant, even if they would improve performance. That responsibility was
subsequently shifted to the country's electricity commission, which has a
tiny budget and no phones to contact foreign suppliers.

More than parts, plants such as Baghdad South needed a full overhaul -- the
equivalent of removing a car's engine, taking it apart and then rebuilding
it -- if there was any hope of raising output above 250 megawatts. "We
quickly realized that we'd need billions and billions of dollars to fix the
system," said Michael Robinson, Bechtel's operations manager in Iraq. "But
we had a very, very limited contract."

By June, looters were toppling dozens of high-voltage towers every week,
cutting off cities south and west of Baghdad from the national grid. Closer
to the capital, saboteurs began felling towers with explosives; one attack
plunged the city into a three-day blackout.

Immediately after Hussein's government fell, the military counted 13
high-voltage towers that had been toppled. Now, more than 650 towers --
one-third of the national network -- have been knocked over, often by
thieves who scavenge for aluminum wire to sell.

"The transmission network was getting worse by the day," Robinson said.

Fuel shortages also compounded the problem. Because the electrical grid
could not provide reliable power to oil refineries, they had to cut back
production. That, in turn, reduced supplies of diesel and natural gas to
generating plants, forcing some of them to reduce output.

New Strategy Needed

By mid-July, Bremer concluded that the prewar strategy would no longer work,
according to people familiar with the discussions. As a first step, he urged
the U.S. Agency for International Development to issue a new, $350 million
contract to Bechtel. Of that money, $275 million was earmarked to fund the
installation of prefabricated, gas-powered generating units to provide 400
megawatts of power in and around Baghdad. Such generators can be set up
within two months instead of the more than two years it would take to build
a large-scale steam-turbine plant.

But the gas units require fuel that is in short supply in Iraq, as well as
the installation of pipelines from refineries. "It's easier said than done,"
Comparetto said. "But we're scouring the world for them."

 Bremer and other occupation authority officials eventually determined that
they needed a much larger infusion of money to rehabilitate the electricity
sector, which they regarded as necessary to rebuild the economy, restore
security and regain the support of many Iraqis.

"There was finally a conclusion that the only way to solve the problem would
be to spend billions of dollars," a U.S. official said.

In the early months of the occupation, the official said, "everyone believed
that saying we needed billions of dollars was too politically risky. Now
they realize that if they don't fix the power system quickly, this whole
effort will fail -- and that's a much bigger political risk."   The Bush
administration's $5.7 billion budget request calls for spending $2.9 billion
to increase generating capacity through the renovation of existing plants
and the construction of new ones, and $2.5 billion to improve high-voltage
transmission networks and urban distribution systems. Bearpark said the
money should produce an 8,000-megawatt capacity, enough to meet the
country's needs over the next few years.

"It's a massive, massive project," said Ayham Sameraei, Iraq's new minister
of electricity. "But we need this help if we want to just come back to the
standard of a Third World country."

To prevent more towers from being toppled, Sameraei said he has authorized
hiring 4,000 "power police" officers, 1,500 of whom have already been hired,
and he has told his staff to pay tribal leaders to set up protection squads
for the transmission network. He said he also has urged the U.S. military to
fly helicopters over power lines and shoot looters on sight. The military
has agreed to the first request, but not the second.

Even without the new funding, Bremer has set his sights on reaching prewar
electricity production levels by the end of the month -- a goal that may be
attainable because demand usually dips in late September. To get there, the
occupation authority has deployed military officers to 22 power plants to
help direct repair work and take charge of ordering parts.

But at Baghdad South, the equipment Shihab wants still has not arrived.
Capt. Roderick Pittman, the officer assigned to Baghdad South, has a simple
answer for the delay: It is impossible to find parts for the plant because
it is so old. "It's not like you can find this stuff on the shelf anywhere,"
he said. "This place is very Stone Age."

 2003 The Washington Post Company

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