BAGHDAD — Sabotage attacks on power plants, transmission lines, oil pipelines and fuel trucks are keeping the electricity out for more than 12 hours a day in Iraq, leaving many people to face a freezing winter by candlelight.
Iraqi officials, wary of growing instability before the elections, say outages have reached crisis proportions, especially in the capital, with no end in sight.
"I am a firefighter; I am not even an electricity minister," said Iraqi Electricity Minister Ayham Sameraei. "They hit the fuel pipelines everywhere around the power plants. They hit the trucks and scare my guys from keeping this fuel moving."
Last week, saboteurs hit a power plant in the northern city of Baiji, knocking 500 megawatts off the grid and plunging the entire country into darkness for 10 hours. Now most Iraqis get up to 12 hours of electricity daily. Sameraei hopes to increase that to 18 hours a day by Saturday but says it all depends on security.
Twenty-one months after Washington launched its war with the promise of a brighter future, Iraq produces 4,100 megawatts of electricity, a little below prewar levels and about half the country's surging demand.
Repairing and upgrading a grid left dilapidated by neglect and 13 years of sanctions is going to take time, especially because custom-made parts must be imported. But the 18-month insurgency has compounded problems.
Despite dangerous roads, some progress is being made. New engines will be unveiled at a Musayyib power plant in January, bringing it up to 1,200 megawatts, Sameraei said.
Iraqis who can afford it have backup generators at home. But some of the worst fuel shortages since the war have put gasoline and diesel prices beyond the reach of most. Five gallons of gasoline now cost about $14 on the black market, compared with the official, subsidized rate of 9 cents a gallon at the pumps, where queues stretch for miles.
Without power, households increasingly rely on kerosene for heating and natural gas for cooking. Both are now scarce.
Entrepreneurs fill the shortfall, buying big generators and charging neighbors to plug in. But their prices have soared since the winter, during which temperatures in Baghdad drop to freezing at night.
"We are very close to doubling what we have now, but God is not helping me," Sameraei said. "Maybe he will before the election."