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It's a power struggle every day

For Iraqis, the absence of reliable electricity remains one of the worst disappointments of the last five years.

March 24, 2008|Alexandra Zavis | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Khitam Radi remembers how excited she was the day her husband took her out to buy their first washing machine.

It was soon after Saddam Hussein's fall. Foreign soldiers, journalists and officials were snapping up her artist husband's paintings as souvenirs. The newlyweds had everything to hope for.

Now, there are days when she hates that machine. With no electricity most of the time to pump water to their apartment, Radi has to wait in line to fill her jerrycans at a communal faucet, haul the water up four flights of stairs and wash her family's clothes by hand.

"I feel like someone is torturing me," she said. "The Americans promised to make our lives better. . . . But after five years, nothing has changed."

Violence may have dropped in Iraq, but the absence of reliable electricity remains one of the bitterest disappointments of the last five years.

The United States has devoted $4.9 billion to improve the power supply since U.S.-led forces invaded in 2003. But most Iraqis can count on only a few hours of electricity a day, especially when demand peaks in the summer and winter.

U.S. and Iraqi officials say progress has been made but warn it will take years to bring Iraq's dilapidated system up to Western standards, an effort made even more challenging by surging demand for electricity in the last five years.

The country's electricity woes long predate this war. The system was heavily damaged during Iraq's eight-year conflict with Iran in the 1980s and during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. It continued to deteriorate the next dozen years under the United Nations embargo, when spare parts were hard to come by.

By 2003, the World Bank estimated that it would cost $20 billion to rehabilitate the electricity network, and the price tag continues to go up. The Iraqi government's current estimate is $27 billion.

U.S. officials never intended to do more than jump-start the process, said Col. Mike Moon, who heads the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' electricity sector in Iraq.

The U.S. investment has added just over 2,200 megawatts to Iraq's generating capacity, which now stands at about 5,500 megawatts.

Five years ago, that would have been enough to cover the country's electricity needs, but demand has increased 125% because Iraqis are buying more energy-intensive devices, said Terrence Barnich, a senior advisor with the U.S. government's Iraq Transition Assistance Office.

Since the fall of Hussein's regime, Iraq has been flooded with cheap electrical imports from China, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. Already, stacks of fans, water-based air coolers and refrigerators are displayed in front of stores in anticipation of summer, when temperatures can approach 120 degrees.

Adding generating capacity has helped, but the amount of power produced on any given day rarely reaches peak potential. For a start, keeping the turbines spinning requires fuel. Iraq has the world's second-largest proven oil reserves, but its refining capabilities are limited and its power plants are beset by fuel shortages. Oil and electricity installations are also constantly attacked, creating disruptions that can destabilize the entire network.

Nearly 1,200 electricity employees have been kidnapped or killed or have fled the country since 2003, Electricity Minister Karim Waheed told reporters in August.

"We cannot ask our employees to work in certain parts of Iraq due to the insecurity," he said. "I mean, they are workers. They are not army soldiers."

Despite those setbacks, electricity production averaged 4,380 megawatts a day in the last quarter of 2007, enough to meet nearly half of the national demand, according to a report by the U.S. special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.

But how much electricity is available to consumers varies greatly. Priority is given to essential services such as hospitals, police stations, fire stations and water treatment and sewage plants. So nearby homes and businesses enjoy a near-continuous supply of power.

Government offices and universities are in the next category. "Then there is everybody else," Moon said. "They are the first ones to lose power."

The pain of frequent outages is felt most acutely in Baghdad, which received 16 to 24 hours of power a day before 2003.

Hussein diverted electricity from the provinces to keep the capital fully powered, but the current government is striving for a more equitable distribution across the country. That means that Baghdad receives less power while the rest of the country typically receives more.

Baghdad also suffers disproportionately from the effects of the violence. Most of Iraq's power is generated in the north and south of the country, and the towers supporting the lines that bring electricity to the capital are frequent targets.

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