Iraq Insurgents Starve Capital of Electricity
Dec 19, 2006 - James Glanz - The New York Times
Over the past six months, Baghdad has been all but isolated electrically, Iraqi officials say, as insurgents have effectively won their battle to bring down critical high-voltage lines and cut off the capital from the major power plants to the north, south and west.
The battle has been waged in the remotest parts of the open desert, where the great towers that support thousands of miles of exposed lines are frequently felled with explosive charges in increasingly determined and sophisticated attacks, generally at night. Crews that arrive to repair the damage are often attacked and sometimes killed, ensuring that the government falls further and further behind as it attempts to repair the lines.
And in a measure of the deep disunity and dysfunction of this nation, when the repair crews and security forces are slow to respond, skilled looters often arrive with heavy trucks that pull down more of the towers to steal as much of the valuable aluminum conducting material in the lines as possible. The aluminum is melted into ingots and sold.
What amounts to an electrical siege of Baghdad is reflected in constant power failures and disastrously poor service in the capital, with severe consequences for security, governance, health care and the mood of an already weary and angry populace.
"Now Baghdad is almost isolated," Karim Wahid, the Iraqi electricity minister, said in an interview last week. "We almost don't have any power coming from outside."
That leaves Baghdad increasingly dependent on a few aging power plants within or near the city's borders.
Mr. Wahid views the situation as dire, while Western officials in Baghdad are generally more optimistic.
Mr. Wahid said that last week, seven of the nine lines supplying power directly to Baghdad were down, and that just a trickle of electricity was flowing through the two others. Western officials agreed that most of the lines were down, but gave somewhat higher estimates on the electricity that was still flowing.
"There's quite a few that are down, and that does limit our ability to import power into Baghdad," said a senior Western official with knowledge of the Iraqi grid. "The goal and the objective is to get them up as quickly as we can."
Mr. Wahid said he has appealed both to American and Iraqi security forces for help in protecting the lines, but has had little response; Electricity Ministry officials said they could think of no case in which saboteurs had been caught. Payments made to local tribes in exchange for security have been ineffective, electricity officials said.
Neither the Defense Ministry nor the American military responded to requests for comment on the security of the lines.
In response to the crisis, Mr. Wahid has formulated a national emergency master plan that in its first stage involves bringing some 100 diesel-powered generators directly into Baghdad neighborhoods by next summer. That would be followed by the construction of a spate of new power plants in Baghdad and major work on existing ones.
All together, Mr. Wahid estimates, the program would cost $27 billion over 10 years, although some electricity experts knowledgeable about the plan say that even under optimistic assumptions, those enormous expenditures would not bring electrical supplies in line with demand before 2009.
"I don't know how the people in Iraq are going to accept that reality," said Ghazwan al-Mukhtar, an Iraqi electrical engineer who recently left the country because of the security situation, "that after five years, six years, they are still suffering from a lack of electricity."
The reason that the attacks on the high-voltage electrical lines, known as 400-kilovolt lines, have been especially devastating is that they serve as the arterial roads of the national grid, the gargantuan electrical circuit that was designed to carry power from the energy-rich north and south to the great population center in Baghdad.
Throughout the country, there are perhaps 15 particularly critical 400-kilovolt lines, carried by their unmistakable 150-foot towers. The entire network runs for 2,500 miles, often passing through uninhabited desert, said Fouad Monsour Abbo, the assistant director for transmission in the Electricity Ministry.
Statistics maintained by the ministry over this year chronicle the dissolution of sections of the grid and the gradual isolation of Baghdad.
In March, at most one or two of the lines were severed at any one time, but by the summer the typical number had risen to six or seven and had soared to a peak of 12 by early fall. Electricity officials say the decisive moment came July 6, when saboteurs mounted coordinated attacks across the country, gaining a lead in the battle that the government has not been able to reverse.
"They targeted all the lines at the same time, and they all came down," Mr. Abbo said.
Mr. Abbo said a typical strategy was to set off explosives at the four support points of a single tower, which would then pull down two or three more towers as it toppled. As repair crews moved in hours or days later, another tower farther up the line might be struck, and then another, in a race the government had little chance of winning.
On Sunday, Mr. Abbo recited the most recent measures of the devastation. That day, 40 towers were down on a line running to Baghdad from one of the nation’s largest power plants in Baiji, in the insurgent-ridden north, and 42 more towers were down on a line connecting Baiji to a huge power plant in Kirkuk.
Towers were also down on two lines that pass through the 'triangle of death' to connect Baghdad with a power plant to the south in Musayyib, and on four other lines in the Baghdad area or its environs. And the city was entirely cut off from the huge hydroelectric dam at Haditha, to the west in Anbar Province, the homeland of the Sunni insurgency.
Even the destruction of one tower generally shuts down a line.
"All the transfer lines are in hot spots and are targeted by terrorist attacks," said Saadi Mehdi Ali, who as the Electricity Ministry's inspector general follows the issue closely.
The attacks have an immediate impact on the lives of ordinary Iraqis. Last week even the official United States State Department figures, which many Iraqis contend lean toward the optimistic side, said there was an average of 6.6 hours of electricity per day in Baghdad and 8.9 hours nationwide.
Before the war, Baghdad had 16 to 24 hours of power and the rest of Iraq 4 to 8 hours, according to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, an independent United States federal office. While the redistribution has always been cast by American officials as a deliberate reversal of Saddam Hussein-era inequities, the statistics revealing the isolation of Baghdad show that the government no longer has much choice about the amount of power to direct to the city.
Also included in Mr. Wahid's master plan is a centralized, automated control system to move that electricity around what is now an antiquated grid run by engineers who manually throw switches at power stations and substations scattered around the country. The control system would also help stabilize a grid that is increasingly unstable and prone to large-scale blackouts - and make deliberate manipulation of the electricity supply harder.
Iraqi and American officials say another reason that the amount of electricity in Baghdad is down is that power-rich areas like southern Iraq are finding ways to work their switches to keep more of the electricity they generate for themselves.
"That's a fact of life," said a senior Western official who would not be quoted by name. But with the plans for a control system, the official said, "it is becoming less and less of an issue."
The combination of factors draining the city of electricity is reflected in a separate set of figures that gauge the electricity on the so-called 'Baghdad ring' of power lines. Those figures reached a peak of 1300 megawatts in early June and had dropped to 800 megawatts by November. It rebounded slightly to 890 megawatts this month. In contrast, current demand within the Baghdad ring is estimated at 2000 megawatts and growing.
As Baghdad relies increasingly on aging local plants to satisfy the bulk of its demand, Iraqi officials say that poor decisions in the American-financed reconstruction program have made those plants much less effective than they could be.
For example, the Qudis plant, just north of Baghdad, was outfitted with turbine generators modeled on 747 airplane engines that work efficiently only when using fuel of higher quality than the Iraqis can provide with any regularity, a fact that has led to damaging breakdowns.
But there have also been important successes, including the installation of two enormous new turbines by the American contractor Bechtel at the Baghdad South power plant on the banks of the Tigris River. Without the approximately 200 megawatts generated by the turbines, which were transported under heavy security across the perilous Anbar desert to Baghdad in 2004, basic services in the city could be verging on desperate by now.
"It is a battle," said Mr. Abbo of the Electricity Ministry. "But we still have hope."
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