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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

Starved for Power in Baghdad

Iraqis blame the U.S. for not quickly restoring the electrical grid. The firm hired to fix it says the system's sorry state came as a surprise.

September 23, 2003|David Streitfeld | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Ihsan Dhabit has the power to bring sleep and keep food from rotting, to open shops and light streets. But all too often during this miserable summer, he has found himself doing the opposite -- for an hour, for an afternoon, for a day.

Dhabit, the manager of an electricity substation in the middle-class neighborhood of Qadissiya, is a lean young fellow who sits at a wooden desk and punctiliously records his duties in a primitive ledger.

He punches a button on Outgoing Feeder No. 11. Somewhere nearby, it gets darker and hotter.

"We're supposed to give them three hours on, three hours off," Dhabit said. "But when there's not enough power, it's four off and two on."

In Baghdad these days, there is never enough power. Dhabit has 12 megawatts to distribute to his 50,000 customers. "But people could use 30," he said. "It is their dream."

A lot of dreams aren't being fulfilled here. If the U.S. occupation authority's vision of Iraqis gratefully throwing off the shackles of Saddam Hussein and embracing democracy has curdled in the heat, the lack of electricity is a big reason why.

The trouble restoring power also illustrates the mushrooming cost of U.S. reconstruction. U.S. officials originally planned to spend $230 million to relight the country, but now estimate it will take $6.5 billion.

American experts say the prewar electrical grid was in far worse shape than they guessed, and that it broke down completely amid postwar looting and sabotage -- a problem that continues. It now is impossible to transfer or share power around the country. Baghdad will suffer regular outages for the foreseeable future, they say.

The Iraqi engineers say the Americans -- including Bechtel Group, the San Francisco firm hired by the U.S. government to jump-start the Iraqi infrastructure -- should have done more, and done it quicker.

"The Americans have done nothing to fix the power," Dhabit said. "Any improvements have come from the Iraqis."

Cliff Mumm, the senior Bechtel executive in Iraq, conceded that the company should have made power a higher priority.

"Now that we know what we know, I'm sure there would have been more emphasis on power," Mumm said. "Everything depends on power."

Electricity was never supposed to be such a problem. Iraq's reported prewar average generation of 4,400 megawatts a day was expected to be quickly reached and then exceeded after Hussein was deposed.

Instead, power hit 3,400 megawatts early in June and stalled while temperatures rose and demand soared. For weeks, none of the coalition leaders seemed to notice. U.S. occupation overseer L. Paul Bremer said June 12 that Baghdad was "producing 20 hours of electricity a day," a claim he repeated about "most" of the city June 27. Shortly later, most of the city suffered a blackout that lasted several days.

On Aug. 8, the State Department said power distribution was "more stable" than under Hussein. The next day, there were riots in Basra over the lack of gasoline and electricity.

"You know that Clinton campaign slogan, 'It's the economy, stupid?' Here it should be this: 'It's the electricity, guys,' " said Andy Bearpark, Bremer's director of infrastructure. "It determines success or failure. Do it right and you can move forward. Unfortunately, it's the most complex business imaginable."

Bremer said he expected to hit the prewar benchmark of 4,400 megawatts first by the end of July, then by early September, then by the end of September. But by last Saturday, production had hit only 3,678 megawatts, including about 80 megawatts that were being purchased from Syria and Turkey.

Bearpark took on responsibility for power in early August. Like all the other coalition officials, he works out of a makeshift office. In his case, that's a converted dressing room in Hussein's former palace; behind his desk looms a palatial bathroom.

Here is Bearpark's explanation of why the Iraqi power system can't get back to where it was a year ago: "Imagine that a college kid has got a clunker of a car, old and rickety. He can keep it on the road because he understands it completely. He knows he has to take a roundabout route to college because if he takes the most direct way, he'll stall out on the big hill. He knows on cold mornings he can only try to turn it over three times or the carburetor will flood.

"One day he gets sick and doesn't drive the car for a month," Bearpark continued. "Then he sells it for $200. The new guy doesn't start it correctly, which means the fan belt breaks. He tries to run it too quickly, so a wheel comes off. Within a day all he has is a pile of useless junk that can never be driven again."

The power failure is all the more galling because Hussein, as any overheated Iraqi will quickly tell you, got the power back on in 45 days after the 1991 war, bombed power plants and all.

"A ruthless dictator is able to drive through repairs in ways that are unavailable in a democracy," Bearpark said. "I'm hardly likely to shoot people who don't meet their targets."

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