One of the main complaints of people living in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, aside from the continuing violence, is the lack of reliable electricity. And many people feel the electricity situation has gotten worse in the last few months.
The supply of electricity in Iraq has not been reliable since the United Nations imposed trade sanctions 12 years ago, following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The supply was further hurt by the war five months ago, and recovery has been painfully slow. Indeed, some improvements during the first weeks after the war have been reversed.
In Baghdad, the Electricity Ministry says many residents are rationed to three hours of power, followed by three hours of blackout. That is less power than they got before the war. But Baghdad residents say the power cuts seem to be random, and often longer than the ministry reports. The power cuts make life difficult for millions of people, particularly in the stifling summer heat, which is only now starting to ease off. And it's bad for businesses, too.
The owner of a telephone call center, Mohammed Rubei, says he can't do business much of the time. "This cutting, four hours by the day, and you know summer is very hot, is very difficult, and he gives me two hours," he said. "Two hours is not possible. Now, in September, I think is much better in September."
The problem can be understood through a few numbers. Iraq produced 4,500 megawatts of electricity before the war. Current demand is estimated at double that, and is growing quickly. Generating capacity is currently down to 3,500 megawatts.
Iraqi and U.S. officials say there are many reasons for the shortage. The U.N. sanctions made it difficult to import new equipment, but coalition officials also point out that the Saddam Hussein regime found ways around the sanctions to squander millions of dollars on luxury goods for lavish presidential palaces.
In addition, some power lines in Iraq were damaged during fighting between coalition troops and the Iraqi army. More were put out of commission by looters, who stripped downed lines of valuable copper and aluminum. And the coalition says there was sabotage by suspected supporters of the former regime.
The man in charge of a U.N. repair project, Abdul Aziz Abdalla Ahmed, says sometimes, saboteurs bring down the lines the same day they are fixed. "I would say and be comfortable saying, that there is a kind of systematic damage that certain people would want to damage the network, sabotage it," he said.
Mr. Ahmed says saboteurs also bring down the towers that hold up high-voltage transmission lines that supply electricity to Baghdad, sometimes using rocket-propelled grenades or other explosive devices. About 150 kilometers northwest of Baghdad, two towers lie near the road, badly damaged and twisted. The power lines that used to be hooked to the towers are lying on the road, waiting for looters to steal their metal parts. Mr. Ahmed says sometimes, the lines have to be completely replaced. "The looting adds a lot of damage to it, as well, because the looters are more interested in the steel and the copper and aluminum contactors," he said.
There are problems with power stations, too. A newly appointed director-general at the Iraqi electricity ministry, Mohsen Hassan, says it will take at least $6 billion and two years to fix existing power stations, and to build new ones to meet the growing demand.
Mr. Hassan says there are no funds allocated in the 2004 Iraqi budget to improve the power supply. But he hopes his boss, Iraq's newly-appointed electricity minister, will get the money during a visit to the United States, where he will appeal directly to members of the Congress.
"Our minister now, he attend to be present in front of (the) American Congress to discuss this matter," he said. "So, at least we have dollars to start for the next year the maintenance program, the rehabilitation programs and the new generation, plus the projects that have stopped 12 years ago."
Until the larger amounts of money begin to be available, Mr. Hassan says, the U.S. military plans to spend $300 million to bring in gas or diesel-fired generators to add electricity to the Iraqi grid. "The small units - our plan is to put them in operation before next summer," he said.
The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority running Iraq also recently hired 24,000 guards to watch over power lines and oil and water pipelines.
Some residents say the supply of electrical power is slowly improving. But it will be some time before it meets rising demand, pushed by a burgeoning consumer appliance market and the country's reconstruction efforts.