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Iraq Power Grid Shows U.S. Flaws

The job of restoring electrical capacity is steeped in errors and misjudgment. The effort illuminates challenges of reconstruction.

September 12, 2004|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

BAIJI, Iraq — During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, two Tomahawk cruise missiles slammed into the hulking power complex here, leaving dumpster-sized transformers crumpled like balls of tissue paper.

The strike crippled Iraq's largest source of electricity, cutting off almost 10% of the country's power supply. It took two months and 23 days for Iraqi engineers to get the plant running again.

During last year's war, the U.S. military carefully avoided attacks on Iraq's electrical infrastructure, and the plant escaped unscathed. After Baghdad fell, U.S. engineers rushed in with aid to fix the damage from years of disrepair and a spasm of postwar looting.

Today, 17 months and $172 million later, the Baiji power plant -- a vast "Lawrence of Arabia" meets "Blade Runner" complex 125 miles north of Baghdad -- produces less than half the electricity it generated when it was built two decades ago.

In the long, frustrating campaign to rebuild this country, perhaps no task has been more difficult than turning on the lights.

The trouble restoring Iraq's electrical system exemplifies the failures of a larger reconstruction process still marked by tainted water supplies, limited sewage treatment and curtailed construction of public buildings. An effort that was supposed to provide jobs, stability and democracy has instead produced a deep reservoir of confusion and anger that feeds the country's deadly insurgency.

Although electricity was the foundation of the rebuilding campaign, State and Defense department planners vastly underestimated the time, money and effort needed to restore the country's power grid, which had deteriorated far beyond their expectations under 12 years of U.N. sanctions.

A review of the restoration effort shows that it was beset by poor planning, inconsistent leadership, sabotage and deteriorating security.

Today, the campaign is finally producing results, with power generation increasing rapidly in recent weeks. "We are making progress," said Tim Miller, a manager with San Francisco-based Bechtel Corp. who is helping to rebuild the plant. "It's just not as quickly as everyone would like."

The progress has been slowed by intrusive and haphazard U.S. oversight, sources say. U.S. officials in Washington and Baghdad placed enormous pressure on their underlings, setting such high goals that engineers sometimes skipped maintenance, ran generators harder than normal and gambled on untried techniques to raise output.

A Pentagon decision to rely on private contractors to do much of the rebuilding also slowed work. Rather than depend on Iraqis to make quick fixes, the Pentagon decided to spend money on complex, big-ticket infrastructure -- a strategy that would meet long-term goals rather than the nation's immediate needs, critics said.

Congress' insistence on using the federal government's cumbersome procurement system also meant long delays. Understaffed and overworked contracting officials compounded the problem, U.S. officials in Iraq and Washington say.

At the same time, work in Iraq was roiled by constantly changing leadership, vision and emphasis. Since rebuilding began in April 2003, seven people have overseen the electricity project -- the equivalent of a new CEO every 2 1/2 months for one of the most complicated and expensive tasks in Iraq.

"It was absolutely horrendous," said Michel Gautier, head of the United Nations' Iraqi infrastructure office. "We could never collaborate because of the continually changing people. It was extremely inefficient and destructive."

Military mistakes exacerbated the situation. The failure to secure Iraq after the March 2003 invasion permitted widespread looting of power plants and electricity lines. Much of the $5.6 billion in U.S. taxpayer funds dedicated to restoring Iraq's power is being used not to build new plants but to replace what Iraqis stole.

Even more serious has been the insurgency. A wave of guerrilla violence has crippled contractors' ability to work. Companies such as Bechtel, Siemens and General Electric occasionally have had to suspend operations, U.S. officials say. Iraqi workers have been targeted for cooperating with the rebuilding effort. New transmission towers have been destroyed as soon as they were erected.

"We're just not making progress to the extent we could if it weren't for the security issue," said Mike Moseley, a retired Tennessee Valley Authority executive who is the senior U.S. consultant on electricity to the Iraqis. "We're moving forward, but not in a sea of water. We're in a sea of molasses on a cold, winter day."

Even today, the U.S. has not reached the goal set by L. Paul Bremer III, the former head of the U.S.-led occupation authority, to produce 6,000 megawatts of power a day by June 1. By comparison, California has about 50% more people than Iraq but produces up to eight times as much electricity, about 45,000 megawatts at peak summer demand.

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