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Seven Years of War and Still No Power to the Iraqi People

by Paul McGeough

In the searing heat of the Iraqi summer, the difficulty of life with virtually no electricity is hard to comprehend.

But overlay it with the physical and spiritual challenges of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, and the big cities become time bombs ticking at the feet of government.

Or they would, if there was a government. For seven months the country has been paralysed by the failure of the political parties to agree on the make-up of a new government after national elections in mid-March. So with nobody in charge in Baghdad, Iraqis vent their spleen on the streets - being doused by water cannon or arrested and, in some cases, shot by the police.
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Summer in Baghdad is not just a hot spell. Day after grinding day and for weeks at a stretch, the temperatures reach anywhere between 46 and 49 degrees. Airconditioning fails. Elevators stop working. Life, seriously, is a bitch.

In the capital, power allocations can be as mingy as two hours a day.

In August, flashlights were produced on the bench of the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court, so judges could read case documents when a mechanical glitch in the court's back-up generator collided with a regular failure in the national power grid. Acting Electricity Minister Hussain al-Shahristani was embarrassed when the lights went out during a fast-breaking Iftar dinner which he hosted for the Baghdad media last month.

Despite floating on oil and gas, this is a country whose decrepit refineries can produce just a fraction of the refined fuels it needs. So when temperatures rise there is a greater shortage of petrol - because there is even greater demand for the private generators that households fall back on.

Enterprising Baghdadis set themselves up as mini-moguls, buying big generators and selling power to hundreds of their neighbours - thereby festooning the streets with a spaghetti-mess of feed lines.

Everything about the life of Ishmael Mohammed Hussein marks him as a supporter of the ascendant Shiite political classes in post-Saddam Iraq. But just mention the names of the big politicians and his white moustache bristles in disgust.

As a member of the Dawa Party of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki he bridles at the mention of today's incarnation of the old resistance movement: "Ha! They just work for the money for themselves, not for the people. They hold us up against the wall" - and here he mimics a gun-toting gangster - "while they buy themselves villas in other countries."

As head of one of about 70 families who are squatters in what was a government office block on the banks of the Tigris River, Hussein wallows in pessimism.

"Today's Baghdad is such a miserable place," he says. "We hoped on getting rid of Saddam that we would have wealth and happiness, but most of the people in power have come from outside the country and they think only of themselves."

His 56-year-old wife Zaheda Saleh agrees: "Iraq is like a milking cow and these people steal all the milk." The family has been squatting on Baghdad's fabled Abu Nuwas Street since they fled from the southern city of Nasiriyah in 2003. They are on the seventh floor, where the static lift-wells mock efforts to plan their days around as few journeys as possible up and down the dark, concrete staircase.

Water and other weighty supplies are hauled up and over the balcony on ropes. Across the flaccid waters of the Tigris, is the seat of power in Baghdad - the deposed and dead Saddam Hussein's presidential compound which under the US occupation became the Green Zone and which is now the fortified home of the Iraqi government.

Salem's and Husseins' story is numbingly typical of today's Baghdad.They are devout Shiites. He served in Saddam's military for 30 years - during which he was jailed three times for opposing the old regime. They fled the south of the country, hoping to find a better life in the capital; apart from his small pension, the family's only income in recent years has been that earned by one of his sons who worked for a now-defunct American security firm.

Their lodgings have the same monotony. Intended for government pen-pushers, this is a spartan space in which there has been no glass in the windows since all were smashed by the reverberations from a powerful suicide-bomb attack on the nearby Palestine Hotel in January.

"We get about two hours' electricity a day from the national grid and then we pay $US100 per month to the owner of a generator locally who has strung a wire into our home," Hussein says. "Only the minister's have national power - they have elevators, but the rest of the country must walk up the stairs."

But from the confines of his own misery, Hussein tries to discern the contours of Iraq's future - what he can see is not pretty.

"You should not think that Iraq will be stabilised," he says. "Yes, there will be more fighting and it will be worse than what we have seen in the past. There is no reason why this country should not be one of the top 20 economies in the world - but we are still oppressed and this makes us very angry."

A television in the corner hums Ramadan prayers and finally images of a cannon blast signal the precise moment at which the faithful can break the day-long fast. Anticipating the cannon shot the family has spread plastic mats on the floor and then laid out their Iftar meal - grapes and dates, plates of rice and a stew in which there are just a few pieces of chicken.

Just as there is a ragged roughness about the man of this house, there is a graceful elegance about his wife who, on the firing of the Iftar cannon, resorts to an indulgence that few Iraqi women reveal to foreigners - she produces a long, slender cigarette and proceeds to smoke it with great satisfaction.

They eat in silence and then the wife offers this, almost as an apology: "The stairs make me very skinny." And then she offers her pithy political analysis of today's Iraq: "The political parties have started to eat each other."

This squatter couple might be dismissed as not necessarily representative of Iraqi public opinion. But according to a Baghdad-based diplomat, there has been a "steady deterioration" in the ordinary Iraqi's sense of abandonment.

"The politicians just look after themselves, failing at the same time to make agreements or decisions that might be in the interests of their people," he told The Sun-Herald. "And the people will become more disenchanted - wouldn't you if you got just three hours' power a day at the same time as you knew that chronic corruption extended to the top of government?"

The family's pain is felt acutely by the fresh-faced Sinan Taha, a 27-year-old Baghdadi who was still an engineering student when US-led forces invaded Iraq in 2003, but who now can be found in the office of the duty engineer at the Dora power station.

Set in a maze of checkpoints and palm plantations on the southern fringe of the capital, Dora is a museum of technological antiquity.

Belching, blasting and leaking, it is so decrepit and so in need of maintenance and renewal it cannot operate at even half its designed capacity. When Taha's colleagues call for replacement parts for the giant machines, they have to craft them themselves.

Dora's output of just 300 megawatt of power, compared with a design capacity of 640MW, is a revelation of the failure in much of Washington's investment of more than $US4.5 billion in restoring power to Iraq.

Within days of the ousting of Saddam Hussein in 2003, a senior American officer predicted to reporters in Baghdad that "we'll have power rolling in 48 hours." More than seven years later, output is up just 50 per cent on the 4000MW production of the Saddam era - but still way below the voracious demand at the height of this year's broiling summer - 13000MW.

Throw any question on the power crisis to the engineer Sinan Taha and he starts with the same words - "the reasons are many." He begins with the example he knows best - Dora. The last time any of his huge generators were overhauled was in 1989.

An Italian turbine installed as Iraq was emerging from its war with Iran is still referred to as the "new" turbine. And inventive though it might have been, crude efforts to fire generators that were intended to run on gas on diesel has further damaged machines for which Iraq has been unable to get spare parts - either because of international sanctions under Saddam or because of bureaucratic or budgetary incompetence since the fall of Saddam.

More recently, the American and Iraqi efforts to get the work done were bedeviled by corruption and the specialist international engineering firms that might do the work were beset by contractual and security problems.

Taha belittles his likely foreign saviours like many of the locals who have lived through the worst of the Saddam years - the botched US occupation and the birth pangs of what Washington still prays will prove to be a be genuine Middle Eastern democracy.

"Many of them are too scared to come here," he laughs, referring to insurgency violence in which hundreds of Iraqis still die each month. "The Americans would pay for 30 guards to look after a single engineer. But the engineers we get from Russia and from other countries don't need 30 guards - the Russians who are here now don't have any guards."

The view from Washington is a little different. An investigation by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction laid the blame for failure at Dora on the Iraqi Electricity Ministry, which it said had managed neither the operation nor maintenance of almost $US200 million effort to turn the station around.

The inspector's 2007 report said a steam turbine had been rebuilt but not used for more than a year. Another had suffered "catastrophic failure" in 2006 and again the next year. In the report, inspectors said they found the turbine that failed twice also shut down more than 100 times in a year because repeated power surges flipped off circuit-breakers. Generators were overloaded. There was no maintenance performed on machines. Filters were clogged with debris and parts were not lubricated, making them unusable. Insulators were damaged by bullets and shrapnel.

Officials said they were "at times surprised that Iraqi maintainers could keep the plant running in its current state of disrepair." Baghdad's chief energy adviser Thamir Ghadhban attempts the splits on the electricity crisis.

Interviewed during the draining double whammy of Ramadan in summer, he acknowledged popular contempt for people such as himself, but at the same time he pleaded for understanding and patience.

"Demand for power has almost doubled, it increases at 10 per cent a year," he says. "Hopefully by January next year we will have let five or maybe seven new contracts to build an extra 750MW to 1000MW generating capacity and the government is committed to adding 10,000MW in the next 10 years."

Inevitably, such grand statements precede a "but". In this case, the "but" is cold comfort for Iraqis suffering a hot summer.

"We'll need at least five years of hard work to bridge the gap between supply and demand," Ghadhban says.

"The last few years have been difficult, but maybe by 2016 there will be enough supply."

Conscious of popular impatience, Ghadhban, who is a former oil minister, acknowledges the political consequences of continued failure.

"It is unfair that the people of this country continue to suffer with all the wealth that is available . . . and I don't want to say 'let the people wait', but we all have to wait. We have to look at this objectively - there's a risk that the people will turn angry and violent.

"If people are angry and subjected to blackouts and they don't feel secure and there is no sense of equal opportunity, then of course they will say 'bring back Saddam Hussein'."

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