Power Grid In Iraq Far From Fixed

A network of dangerous cables links homes in the Topchi neighborhood in Baghdad to a privately owned generator that supplies electricity during the hours when state power plants cannot.
A network of dangerous cables links homes in the Topchi neighborhood in Baghdad to a privately owned generator that supplies electricity during the hours when state power plants cannot. (Photos By Bassam Sebti For The Washington Post)
By Caryle Murphy and Bassam Sebti
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 1, 2005

BAGHDAD -- When his lights and television go dark, as they regularly do, Khalid Qasim Ali flips a switch in his living room to bring back the power. This electricity is not state-supplied. Instead, it comes from a generator three blocks away that is connected to Ali's home by a wire strung in the air.

All told, 107 families in Baghdad's working-class neighborhood of Topchi are hooked up to the generator. The arrangement gives them power during the long blackouts that are routine in Iraq. It also darkens the skies over Topchi with a tangled skein of unsightly, dangerous cables. Like everyone else, Ali is billed by the ampere. He pays the generator's owner around $10 a month.

"We should enjoy electricity without using a generator because Iraq is a wealthy country," said Ali, a 65-year-old retired truck driver. "Regretfully, the Americans did nothing since they came."

Thousands of roaring generators in Iraqi back yards, driveways and street corners demonstrate that after two years and at least $1.2 billion, the U.S. effort to resuscitate Iraq's electrical system is still very wide of its mark. In fact, the national grid's average daily output of 4,000-4,200 megawatts falls below its prewar level of about 4,400 megawatts.

The shortage is a huge source of public anger and dissatisfaction, as seen in a recent poll by the International Republican Institute, a U.S.-funded nonprofit organization that promotes democracy. Asked what the government's priorities should be, Iraqis put "inadequate electricity" first, ahead of "crime," which was fourth, "the presence of coalition forces," which ranked seventh, and "terrorists," which ranked eighth.

Nothing has done more to puncture Iraqis' once-widespread belief in Americans' technological superiority and power than their inability to quickly revive the power system, vital for Iraq's oil industry. And perhaps nothing has frustrated U.S. reconstruction officials more than that failure.

There are many reasons for the slow pace, from flawed planning by the U.S. early on, to continuing sabotage by insurgents. In addition, with the establishment of an interim government in June, U.S. officials said they had to work more closely with Iraqi electricity officials who were not always as efficient or as willing to take on responsibility as the Americans had hoped.

Now, as Iraq's first democratically elected government assumes power, U.S. officials insist they are only playing a supportive role in rebuilding Iraq's electricity sector. The country's civilian leaders, they say, are responsible for bringing reliable power to Iraq's 26 million people, a task experts estimate will take years and require billions more dollars.

"It is the government of this country who is going to provide electricity. The Americans don't provide electricity," William B. Taylor, director of the U.S. Embassy's Iraq Reconstruction Management Office, said in an interview. "The government is going to get the credit and they're taking the responsibility, and they're doing a good job. They've got some problems. We're helping them as much as we can. We got a lot of money we're putting into this. And we have a lot at stake here. We want them to succeed. We want them to be able to provide electricity to their people."

With a scorching summer approaching, Iraqi and U.S. officials are worried about the shortage. A brisk consumer goods market has put more refrigerators and air conditioners in Iraqi homes than ever, leading U.S. officials to forecast that peak daily demand in the 100-degree days of July and August could go up to 8,000 to 8,800 megawatts.

Although current output averages 4,000 to 4,200 megawatts, the level on many days is lower because of unplanned outages or shutdowns for scheduled maintenance. During the second week in April, for example, average output was 3,517 megawatts, according to the Iraq Index, which is compiled by the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

"I have concerns about this summer," said Rick Whitaker, who oversees power-related projects in Iraq for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Whitaker estimated that by midsummer, the national grid might be able to produce "slightly less than 6,000 megawatts daily peak."

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