Plumes of thick black smoke billowed from the Baiji power station, where a contingent of U.S. soldiers craned their necks and tried to count the long columns of soot shooting into the sky. Three? Four? No, five, there were definitely five. Dirty-faced and sweating in the mid-afternoon heat, the soldiers bobbed their helmets in agreement and beamed.
Five spewing smokestacks meant all but one of the steam-powered units at the power station were operational. And that meant Baghdad, 125 miles to the south, was having a good power day because the Baiji station supplies more than one third of the capital's electricity.
"Back in February, we'd come over this bend just hoping to see some smoke," said Capt. David Unger, the electricity adviser for the Army's 1st Infantry Division.
U.S. reconstruction authorities have poured more than $200 million into the power station in a race to bring more electricity to Iraq.
Both the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Army Corps of Engineers have huge restoration projects underway within the complex, which is a self-contained compound located between miles of blowing sand and ragtag farmland on the banks of the Euphrates River.
The Baiji power station can produce more electricity than any plant in the country, but even here, progress is measured one megawatt at a time. The steam-powered units should be producing up to 1,300 megawatts, which is enough power for about 4 million households. Instead, the plant ekes out 510 megawatts a day. That, however, is 50 megawatts more than the plant produced before the beginning of the war last year.
"This number is going up, but it's very small," said Basem Janabi, a senior manager at the plant "The main goal is not to increase capacity. The main thing is to keep up the load until next year, when we will have more stability."
The story of Baiji helps explain why power generation remains one of the most vexing reconstruction challenges in Iraq.
U.S. engineers who arrived to repair the plant found it was barely holding together, the result of 13 years of economic sanctions against Iraq. Because many parts of the plant were in disrepair, the engineers have had to focus on keeping things from falling further apart instead of adding crucial generation machinery. But security threats have made it difficult to bring in parts. Fuel shortages have hampered production. Iraqi engineers have been reluctant to take equipment off-line for repairs because the plant isn't producing enough power as it is.
"It is not for the lack of determination under some very austere conditions," said Lt. Col. Jeff Ogden, director of the Army Corps' electrical restoration program. "This is a combat zone, and there is still considerable insurgent activity. It has been difficult to obtain all the materials required where and when you need them. This obviously has a great impact on your construction schedule."
Though Iraq has more power than it did before the war, Baghdad has suffered. The capital had a steady and sufficient flow of electricity under President Saddam Hussein, who supplied the capital at the expense of the rest of the country. National levels currently hover around 5,300 megawatts a day, far short of the 6,000 megawatt goal that U.S. authorities wanted by June and not nearly enough to supply all of Iraq.
Many Baghdad residents blame the now-defunct U.S. occupation authority for the shortage.
"What do the Americans do for us? Nothing," said Sanaa Addallatif, 49, a resident of the wealthy Monsour neighborhood of Baghdad. "If they give the Iraqi people electricity and water, all the Iraqi people will love America."
Addallatif said her daughters, college students, had been unable to prepare for their exams because there was no power at night to provide light for them to study. Her emergency generator has broken three times, requiring the family to spend $700 to fix it.
"Every time it breaks, I have to go to the market to sell some of my gold," she said, growing agitated while sitting in her neighbor's home, where she had come to visit. "They spend the money to buy tanks, on body guards for our ministries, on new cars. But it's hot at night. I can't sleep. I want to send a message to George Bush. Where is the power? This is my question. We don't need to have a good president of Iraq. We don't need this new political process. We just need to have power."
Iraqi engineers at Baiji echoed her frustration at the pace of progress.
"It is going so slow," said Tahseen Zeki, the manager of a new mobile power station built by the Army Corps. "All the Iraqis, they just want to have electricity. The roads are open. The skies are open."
Zeki said he blamed the former occupation government. "It came down to this," he said, rubbing his fingers together as if they held cash.
In Baiji, USAID, through its contractor, California-based Bechtel National Group, is focusing on repairing six giant generators powered by steam turbines. Electricity is sent from the generators to a switchyard, where it is then passed on to the power grid. About 60 percent of Baiji's electricity is distributed outside of the region.
In the main control room one afternoon, Ahmed Taqi, a technical operator, monitored power distribution to neighboring provinces by observing a large panel of dials and blipping lights. Before the war, distribution was monitored by computer. Now Taqi does it by hand. Asked why the computer hadn't been fixed, Taqi simply shrugged.
Iraqi laborers are finishing up a brick wall that will surround the Baiji station, which comprises three separate power plants: the thermal plant, eight mobile generators and a gas turbine plant.
The Army Corps is responsible for the mobile generation and gas turbine plants, projects that will add 440 megawatts of power when they are completed. Florida-based Odebrecht Construction Inc., the contractor for the gas turbine project, has hired more than 1,000 local workers through seven major subcontractors and their various subcontractors.
Dan Spencer, a senior manager for Odebrecht, said the project should be completed by November, three to four months quicker than it would typically take to build a power station in the United States, he said.
"We were called to get power on the grid as quickly as possible," Spencer said last week, while workers in light blue coveralls moved beams and stitched together long cable wires. One worker had spread out his prayer mat and was bent in silence.
As a security measure, the U.S. contractors live in guarded compounds at the power station, which is near the village of Hanshe, a farming community that protected the plant from looting immediately after the war.
Washington Group International, of Idaho, the prime Army Corps contractor responsible for power generation in northern Iraq, built a new school for the village. The facility replaced a 26-year-old, crumbling school that villagers had built by hand.
A sign in front of the school reads in English and Arabic: "This school is built and funded by Washington Group International, a [p]rivate American company. It is dedicated to the children of Al-Hanshe. Peace on Earth. Good will toward men."
Hasan Ali Abraham, the school's headmaster, stood in the middle of a group of smiling, clapping children, who had dressed in their finest clothes to meet American soldiers stopping by for a visit.
The children played with the soldiers' radios, clamored to check out their weapons and eagerly posed for pictures.
Abraham said he was grateful to the contractors for building the school and to the 1st Infantry Division soldiers who patrol the area. The school "even has two air-conditioners," he said proudly.
There has been only one problem.
"There's not enough power for them to function," Abraham said. "In fact, all this village has very poor power. Think about it: We are neighbors with the power station."
Special correspondent Luma Mousawi contributed to this report.