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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 system. "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 said. 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 typical." 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 _______________________________________________ Sent via the discussion list of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq. To unsubscribe, visit http://lists.casi.org.uk/mailman/listinfo/casi-discuss To contact the list manager, email firstname.lastname@example.org All postings are archived on CASI's website: http://www.casi.org.uk