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Power Shortages Pose Huge Problems for New Iraq - 2004-06-21


Restoring stable electricity supplies in Iraq had been a top priority for U.S.-led coalition authorities since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003. But efforts to turn the lights back on, and keep them on, have not been easy. In Najaf in south-central Iraq, American and Iraqi frustration over the lack of a solution to the power shortages is climbing, along with soaring summer temperatures.

For the past week, locally hired workers have been busy repairing walls, replacing doors and windows, and installing electrical outlets and plumbing systems at the Abrar primary school in one of the poorest areas of Najaf.

Catering to 2,000 students, it is the first time the school has been renovated since it was built two decades ago. When the project is finished, the school is also expected to have new desks and chairs, and, in another first for the school, computers and air conditioners.

For the U.S. military, the renovation work at the school was an opportunity to show journalists an example of the several hundreds-of-thousands of dollars' worth of reconstruction projects that its soldiers have started in the city.

The soldiers say such work has been ongoing, despite recent heavy fighting here between U.S. troops and militiamen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

But the focus quickly turns to another problem that many Iraqis say has not been adequately addressed by the U.S.-led occupation; electricity.

Just as journalists are about to enter the school, a local resident, Jabbar Hadi, shouts that what his children need most is electricity, not fancy schools.

Mr. Hadi says he has had no electricity in his house for eight days. He says he has seven children, some of whom are constantly ill because of they are eating spoiled food and suffering from heat exhaustion.

Eight days of no power may be an exaggeration. But for the second straight summer, most Iraqis throughout the country say they are not getting enough electricity to deal with scorching temperatures of 50 degrees Centigrade in some cities.

In the capital, Baghdad, housewife and mother Saadia Fathi Rashid says that before the war, the city had more than 20 hours of electricity a day. Now, she says, her family is lucky to get eight hours, broken up by blackouts that can last four hours or more.

Ms. Rashid says that sometimes there is no electricity at all at night, making sleeping impossible in the heat. She says she is angry at the U.S.-led occupation for not fulfilling its promise to fix the electricity problem.

Coalition officials in Iraq say that providing enough electricity to the country has long been a top priority. They note that $5.5 billion of the more than $18 billion approved by Congress for Iraq's reconstruction have been budgeted for restoring electrical power.

Foreign and Iraqi engineers have been repairing power plants and fixing broken lines throughout the country. But every step forward has been followed by another step back, keeping electricity production at least 30 percent below what many say is needed to keep the country running.

The biggest problem has been sabotage directed at transmission lines, power plants, and some oil and gas pipelines that supply fuel for the plants.

The New York Times newspaper, citing an internal Iraqi government report, says that in the first three months of this year, Iraq's power infrastructure was attacked 68 times, far more than what coalition and Iraqi officials have publicly acknowledged. The newspaper suggests the number of attacks is outpacing the ability of engineers to repair the damage.

That is because violence targeting foreign experts and engineers has prompted several foreign companies to pull out of Iraq, leaving fewer skilled people to carry out repairs.

Earlier this month, a Moscow-based electrical company ordered all its 241 employees to leave Iraq, after gunmen shot and killed several Russian technicians working at power plants in and around Baghdad.

According to Army Major Chuck Nelson in Najaf, major cities like Baghdad are now taking power from smaller cities like Najaf to make up for shortfalls. And that, he says, is leading to supply problems in cities that should have plenty of power.

"There is a power plant just south of an-Najaf which creates more electricity than they use in this town," he said. "The problem is that Baghdad does not create as much as they need, so some of the power that comes out of this power plant gets siphoned down the electrical lines to Baghdad. For me, it is very frustrating because I listen to these people every day and they tell me, 'I need more power' and I know we are generating all we need right here. But we cannot keep it here."

Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein used similar methods to drain supplies from the rest of the country to keep the lights on in Baghdad.

But coalition military spokesman Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt says these are very different circumstances. Unlike Saddam, who often used electricity distribution to reward friends and punish enemies, General Kimmitt says coalition and Iraqi officials want every Iraqi to have as much power as possible. The only way that can happen, he says, is if everyone in Iraq helps to end the sabotage and other attacks on infrastructure.

Officials here believe the main purpose of the attacks is aimed at increasing Iraqi anger and frustration toward the occupation and its pro-American interim government.

"It has been a long-standing policy of terrorists to try to intimidate, to try to frustrate, to try to isolate the people of Iraq, and it is very important in our mind that the people of Iraq understand what is going on here and to band together to clearly reject the terrorists as they try to separate the people from the interim government and coalition forces," General Kimmitt said.

But for most Iraqis, like 30-year-old Najaf construction worker Ismail Majid Abuhd, the power shortages are baffling, and they say they blame the U.S.-led coalition entirely.

Mr. Abuhd says the Americans have done nothing for Iraqis and are no longer welcome here. He says they should leave the country, but he quickly adds, "Could you ask them to make sure the electricity problem in Iraq is fixed before they leave?"

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