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Lack of Electricity Cripples Life in Iraq

Lack of security remains the top concern for most Iraqis, as they hear of almost daily attacks against coalition forces in the country and witness rampant crime. Go into any Iraqi household, and talk soon turns to electricity.

Basimaa Alnidawi and her family live in a house in the Adamiyah neighborhood of Baghdad. There's a large ceiling fan in the spacious living room. But it's not working, because there is no power.

Mrs. Alnidawi says they have power for only a few hours a day - off and on. She says it is hard on the whole family, especially the children and older people. She says it was not like that under Saddam Hussein, the electricity was stable, we are wondering why everything is chaos now.

Many Iraqis feel the same way. They will readily acknowledge that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant they were happy to get rid of, but they also insist that, at least back then, they had electricity.

With the Iraqi summer in full swing, and temperatures rising well into the 40 degree Celsius range every day, the lack of electricity is fraying nerves.

Electricity is not just about keeping on the lights and running the fans and air conditioners. Lack of power also affects businesses, as well as water pumping stations and filtration systems. Off in the distance the smoke stacks of the al-Doura power plant spew out thick, black smoke. Only two of its towers are usually in operation. Jinan Mati Behnam, the plant manager for the past 27 years says the power station is working at barely 50 percent capacity. But, he says it has nothing to do with the war. He says the plant is old and badly needs a complete overhaul.

Behnam: There are four steam units and four gas units. Two units are now in operation - 50 percent of design capacity, because it needs full rehabilitation. This start before 15 years.

Pace: So, this was a problem already before the war?

Behnam: Yes, the same as before the war. Nothing changed. You know, since 1991, until before the war, the problem with spare parts.

Pace: Because of sanctions?

Behnam: Yes, … they always refused or delayed to bring spare parts, and until now, it needs maintenance and full rehabilitation.

Mr. Behnam says the power stations in Baghdad are working, though none at full capacity. He says some of the distribution lines were damaged during the war, but he says about 60 percent of those have been repaired. But even that is not enough. He says Baghdad never generated enough electricity.

That assessment is echoed by the top U.S. civil administrator for Iraq, Paul Bremer.

"Baghdad is a net importer of electricity and has been for 20 years," he said. "Under the previous regime, power was taken from the provinces to Baghdad, so that Baghdad could have 18-20 hours a day. We have been able to quadruple the amount of electricity in the last five weeks from 300 megawatts when the war ended, to an average of 1,200-1,300 megawatts. And, we're trying to get that up higher.

"Most of Baghdad is now getting 20 hours of electricity a day; some areas are not," continued Mr. Bremer. "On average, most of Baghdad is getting as much electricity today as it was on average before the war."

But the United Nations Development Program said that electricity output had actually dropped due to the sabotage and lack of maintenance.

American officials agree that sabotage attacks against power plants pose a major problem. They blame loyalists of the old regime for staging the attacks to try to stir popular discontent against the coalition.

One American military officer, who prefers not to speak on the record, cites another factor. He says that, in many cases, it's a matter of simple looting.

The officer says that, often, when the Americans repair electricity cables, they come back the next morning and find them gone - cut and looted by people who want to sell the copper wiring inside.

But all these explanations are not likely to satisfy many Iraqis, certainly not Mrs. Alnidawi, who sits in her living room, wiping the perspiration off her face.

She says the lack of electricity is the fault of the Americans. She says America is an advanced country, they put satellites into space and a man on the moon, she says, why can't they bring electricity back to Iraq?

Some Iraqis even say the Americans are cutting off power on purpose, to punish Iraqis. After all, they say, that's what Saddam Hussein used to do.

Given the general disrepair of Iraq's power plants, sabotage attacks and looting, it could be some time before Iraqis will have a fully adequate and stable supply of electricity.