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Frustrations Mount for Iraq's Minister of Electricity - 2004-07-19

As frustrated as Iraqi law-and-order officials have been in their effort to establish security in the country, so too are those charged with trying to re-establish a reliable electricity system.

Following decades of neglect, Iraq's ability to provide adequate amounts of power to its citizens is in woeful need of repair. No one knows it better than Iraq's minister of electricity, who says his job has been so frustrating, he almost quit.

In the time it took to write this report, electricity to this hotel went out six times. And, each time, a generator kicked in to provide the power supply.

More than a year after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the power outages are a daily, if not hourly occurrence in and around Baghdad. On average, the power supply in Baghdad runs about 12-hours on and 12-hours off. Under Saddam, electricity in Baghdad ran about 20-hours on and only four-hours off.

As temperatures, hitting 45 degrees Centigrade, continue to rise so does the level of frustration throughout the capital. Few are more frustrated than the man in charge of power supply, Minister of Electricity Aiham Alsammarae. "After two months from the job I almost quit the job," he says.

Mr. Alsammarae says the sorry state of Iraq's electricity supply has its roots in the Saddam Hussein regime. He says the generation and transmission systems he inherited suffer from decades of neglect and the effects of last year's war. He says the system is completely overloaded.

"I have a problem with the distribution and how I transfer the power. Distribution is very bad, and in certain areas I lose the transformers at any minute as the result of too much load. We designed the transformers for certain amps for certain homes. Right now, because [of] the improvement in the economy everybody is buying two, three air conditioners," says Mr. Alsammarae. "They are putting it in the homes and this is ending up being too much load on the same transformers. So, we are on fire. We lose this transformer, we fix it, we go to the next transformer, we fix it. Everywhere we are fixing transformers. It takes us 10 hours to one day."

Making matters worse are acts of sabotage. Mr. Alsammarae says attacks on power plants under construction caused many of the foreigners building those plants to flee the country.

"And if they leave, and if I do not have the expertise to finish the job, the job is postponed," he says. "I cannot finish it."

Such is the case north of Baghdad in the city of Daur, where four generating stations remain off-line because the foreign experts fled the country. And, adding to the electricity minister's frustration is the issue of theft, something he says he told the former U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, all about.

"We are repeating a lot of work. Some transmission lines, we build it, they steal it. We build again. They steal it," says Mr. Alsammarae. "I told Mr. Bremer, you are hiring me for a job that is like that you are sending me to hell. And, you are telling me to put in a lot of air conditioning until you make it paradise. How? This is hell. It is built as hell, so you cannot fix it."

Mr. Alsammarae says Iraq's electricity problems will continue unless the entire system is overhauled. But, he acknowledges he does not have the billions of dollars he says it will take to do the job.

So, with not enough funds, acts of terror and theft, and an electricity distribution system on the verge of collapse, why does this frustrated, overworked minister who admits he is a target of terrorists continue to do his job?

"We have been shouting the last 20 years saying Saddam is a bad guy and he is not doing the right thing in Iraq," says Mr. Alsammarae. "Okay, now you got the opportunity. Why you run away from it? You cannot, right?"