A Benchmark of Progress, Electrical
Grid Fails Iraqis
Sep 28, 2010 - Steven Lee Myers
- The New York Times
BAGHDAD — Ikbal Ali, a bureaucrat
in a beaded head scarf, accompanied by a phalanx
of police officers, quickly found what she was out
looking for in the summer swelter: electricity thieves.
Six black cables stretched from a power pole to a
row of auto-repair shops, siphoning what few hours
of power Iraq’s straining system provides.
“Take them all down,” Ms.
Ali ordered, sending a worker up in a crane’s
bucket to disentangle the connections. A shop owner,
Haitham Farhan, responded mockingly, using the words
now uttered across Iraq as a curse, “Maku kahraba” — “There
is no electricity.”
From the beginning of the war more than seven years
ago, the state of electricity has been one of the
most closely watched benchmarks of Iraq’s progress,
and of the American effort to transform a dictatorship
into a democracy.
And yet, as the American combat mission — Operation
Iraqi Freedom, in the Pentagon’s argot — officially
ends this month, Iraq’s government still struggles
to provide one of the most basic services.
Ms. Ali’s campaign against electricity theft — a
belated bandage on a broken body — makes starkly
clear the mixed legacy that America leaves behind
as Iraq begins to truly govern itself, for better
Iraq now has elections, a functioning, if imperfect,
army and an oil industry on the cusp of a potential
boom. Yet Baghdad, the capital, had five hours of
electricity a day in July.
The chronic power shortages are the result of myriad
factors, including war, drought and corruption, but
ultimately they reflect a dysfunctional government
that remains deadlocked and unresponsive to popular
will. That has generated disillusionment and dissent,
including protests this summer that, while violent
in two cases, were a different measure of Iraq’s
“Democracy didn’t bring us anything,” Mr.
Farhan said in his newly darkened shop. Then he corrected
himself. “Democracy brought us a can of Coke
and a beer.”
The overall legacy of the American invasion today,
like that of the war itself, remains a matter of
dispute, colored by ideology, politics and faith
in democracy’s ultimate ability to take root
in the heart of the Arab world.
Even Iraqis suspicious of American motives hoped
that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would bring
modern, competent governance. Still, the streets
are littered with trash, drinking water is polluted,
hospitals are bleak and often unsafe, and buildings
bombed by the Americans in 2003 or by insurgents
since remain ruined shells.
What is clear is that Iraqis’ expectations
of a reliable supply of electricity and other services,
like their expectations of democracy itself, have
exceeded what either Americans or the country’s
quarrelling politicians have so far been able to
“Iraqi politicians are killing our optimism,” Hassan
Shihab said, complaining about blackouts after Friday
Prayer at a mosque in Baquba, northwest of Baghdad.
Dictatorship, he added, “was more merciful.”
Iraq’s electricity problem is, of course,
older than its still-uncertain embrace of a new form
of government. Before Mr. Hussein’s invasion
of Kuwait 20 years ago this month, Iraq had the capacity
to produce 9,295 megawatts of power. By 2003, after
American bombings and years of international sanctions,
it was half that.
The shortages since have hobbled economic development
and disrupted almost every aspect of daily life.
They have transformed cities. Rumbling generators
outside homes and other buildings — previously
nonexistent — and thickets of wires as dense
as a jungle canopy have become as much a part of
Iraq’s cityscapes as blast walls and checkpoints.
Most of the generators are privately operated, and
the cost — roughly $7 per ampere — has
for ordinary Iraqis become too exorbitant to power
anything more than a light and a television.
“I’ve never seen good electricity from
the day I was born,” said Abbas Riyadh, 22,
a barber in Sadr City, the impoverished Shiite neighborhood
in Baghdad. As he spoke, as if on cue, the lights
Billions of Dollars Later
The United States has spent $5 billion on electrical
projects alone, nearly 10 percent of the $53 billion
it has devoted to rebuilding Iraq, second only to
what it has spent on rebuilding Iraq’s security
forces. It has had some effect, but there have also
been inefficiency and corruption, as there have been
in projects to rebuild schools, water and sewerage
systems, roads and ports.
The special inspector general for Iraqi reconstruction,
Stuart W. Bowen Jr., said that one quarter of 54
reconstruction projects his office had investigated — including
those providing electricity and other basic services — had
not been completed or carried on by the Iraqis they
were built for.
The United States is now winding such projects down,
leaving some unfinished and others, already in disrepair,
in the hands of national and provincial governments
that so far seem unwilling or unable to maintain
and operate them adequately.
“We brought the framework of electoral democracy,” Mr.
Bowen said, “but its future efficacy is very
much in doubt.”
Iraq does generate more electricity than it did
in 2003, but nowhere near enough to match rising
demand, driven higher by the proliferation of consumer
goods, especially air-conditioners. Democracy, the
easing of the country’s isolation and improving
security have, paradoxically, created new conditions
and demands that the government of Prime Minister
Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has been unable to address.
Iraq’s electrical grid remains a patchwork
of old power plants and new, supplemented with makeshift
and inadequate solutions. Iraq now imports 700 megawatts
from Iran. When temperatures soared this summer,
it paid for two electricity-generating ships from
Turkey to dock near Basra, one of the most badly
affected cities, at a cost of hundreds of thousands
The country’s transmission and distribution
networks are aging and mismanaged by a bureaucracy
as sclerotic as it was in Mr. Hussein’s era.
The entire system is hampered by poor planning and
by interagency rivalries that, for example, delay
fuel to power plants; by a lack of conservation;
by continuing terrorist attacks on electrical towers,
including four in the last half of July in Baghdad,
Anbar and Diyala Provinces.
Corruption — which the special inspector general’s
office called “Iraq’s ‘second insurgency’ ” in
a report released on Friday — is pervasive.
Mr. Farhan, the shop owner, said his landlord had
bribed Ministry of Electricity workers to install
the pirated cables three years ago. “He couldn’t
just connect the cables himself,” he noted.
Fight Against Pilfering
The government campaign against pilfering — which
officials said resulted in hundreds of miles of cables
removed, with barely discernible effect — followed
the public protests, including one in Basra in June
that ended with the police opening fire, killing
At first Mr. Maliki denounced the protests as the
work of foreign agents, an ominous echo of the conspiracy-minded
remarks of Saddam Hussein, while the Interior Ministry
announced strict limits on public protests.
Then Mr. Maliki, fighting for a second term as prime
minister, moved to quell the populist outrage. He
fired his electricity minister and ordered cuts in
power to the privileged enclaves of ministers and
politicians, a practice that began under Mr. Hussein
and continues. Few Iraqis believe those cuts have
been meaningful or will be lasting.
In Mosul, the troubled northern city, the consequence
of the campaign against piracy turned violent in
June. When government workers cut an illegal connection
from the Nineveh Textile Factory to a restive neighborhood
called Mahmoun, insurgents retaliated by shelling
“I knew it was not safe for me, but I did
it anyway,” said a ministry engineer, referring
to ordering the cutting of the cables.
“After that, the electricity went back to
normal, as it was before, but the reply came quickly
when the factory was targeted with mortars. There
were many victims of the success,” said the
engineer, who would give his name only as Abdullah,
Father of Mohammed. Twelve people at the factory
Mr. Maliki and his ministers have pleaded for patience,
which is clearly running out, especially as the newly
elected Parliament remains deadlocked over choosing
a new prime minister and government nearly five months
after the election.
The new acting electricity minister, Hussain al-Shahristani,
said at an investment conference in July that Iraq
would add 5,000 megawatts by 2012 but acknowledged
that that would not keep up with demand.
“The problem will persist because there is
no magic wand or miracle that can solve it,” he
He then urged Iraqis to turn off all but one air-conditioner
in their homes — and presumably to huddle with
their families in that room.
The government’s inaction compounds the problem.
In 2008, Mr. Maliki announced a deal to buy 56 gas
turbine generators from General Electric and 16 from
Siemens for a total cost of $5 billion. More than
two years later the purchase remains stalled because
of political quarrels over financing and delays in
negotiating contracts to install them.
These types of generators have their own problems.
At Baghdad South, a complex of three power plants,
two General Electric generators installed in 2005
by the United States operate at about half their
The plant director, Abdul Karim Mohammed, said the
generators were designed to operate at an optimal
efficiency using natural gas, not the fuel oil that
the Iraqis use, and when the temperature is 60 degrees.
It was 120 the day he spoke.
Already he has been ordered to defer recommended
maintenance to keep the machines running at full
tilt, with the consequence of wearing them out faster.
Needed parts are prohibited by Iraq’s customs
rules. Mr. Mohammed has spent a year trying to break
through the bureaucracy. “It’s not a
technical issue,” he said. “It’s
a political issue.”
American diplomats and military commanders respond
defensively when pressed on why, after all the American
investments and expertise, Iraq still struggles to
They cite challenges that would overwhelm any government
trying to fix a country emerging from dictatorship
and war: violence, climate, aging infrastructure
and soaring demand, which they call a sign of a burgeoning
“Are people frustrated by this?” the
American ambassador, Christopher R. Hill, asked. “Yes,
I think they are.”
He added: “I think that the frustrations were
evident on the street, but the solutions are ones
that involve timely decision-making. I’m not
going to criticize the government on whether it moved
fast enough to build more power stations, but I think
Iraqi voters are going to look at that.”
The question today is whether voters can force their
leaders to act — and whether only moderately
functional services will get worse as America continues
to disengage. Not all Iraqis are persuaded. Even
some senior officials express doubts about the country’s
governance, about Iraq’s readiness to function:
either on practical matters like electricity or more
abstract ones like democracy.
“This is the fault of the Americans,” the
deputy minister of electricity, Ra’ad al-Haras,
said. “They put in place a big, wide-open democracy
after the regime. They went from zero democracy to
100 percent. Democracy has to be step by step. You
see the result.”