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Power shift at Iraq power plant a key test

U.S. troops turn over a base protecting the biggest power plant in Iraq. The plant is running at less than full capacity, and higher summer electrical needs lie ahead. Then there's the danger of attack.

March 11, 2009|Tina Susman

MUSAYYIB, IRAQ — Flames flickered from a metal trash can as a U.S. soldier shoved maps and other papers into the fire. A front loader carried an outhouse down a dirt lane marked N. Hellcat Road.

It was handoff day at Iskan, a U.S. military base on the grounds of Iraq's largest power plant. Its troubled past, imperfect present and foggy future mirror the country as a whole as U.S. forces pull out of bases and turn them over to the Iraqis, even as recent suicide bombings have renewed fears of instability.

Bombed out of commission by American warplanes in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War, targeted by insurgents after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 and occupied by American forces for nearly six years, the thermal plant is light-years ahead of what it was at the start of the current conflict, but still operating at less than half capacity.

Inside a control room, the original equipment with its buttons, levers and blinking lights looks like an artifact from the set of "Star Trek"; new equipment is coming, but it takes time. In the lobby, a cobweb-cloaked model of the plant as it looked after the 1991 bombing serves as a reminder of the attack, as if that were necessary -- employees bring it up in every conversation with a foreign visitor.

But when Iraqis here, and in the rest of the country, speak of the superpower that both pummeled and protected them, they sound like college graduates glad to be free of classrooms but anxious about what lies ahead. Most are happy to see the occupation's end in sight, even as they acknowledge that the situation is far from fixed and might never be as good as they hoped.

The plant, for example, produces about 600 megawatts -- enough to power about 150,000 homes in this area of lush fields, sandy plains and market towns bearing the scars of battles past.

That's good enough for now because "the weather is nice," the plant manager, Abbas Ubad, said as the sun sparkled off the Euphrates River out his office window. "No one is using their heaters or air conditioners."

Ubad's unspoken warning: Come May, when temperatures begin their annual climb into triple digits, demand will soar and so will public dissatisfaction with services, government and life since the current conflict began.

If anything has angered Iraqis more than the insecurity that followed the U.S.-led invasion, it is the shortage of electricity. Both have vastly improved. Even so, 258 Iraqis, including 211 civilians, died in war-related violence last month.

The country produces about 6,000 megawatts of power, compared with 4,100 five years ago, but 6,000 was the goal set for June 2004 by then-U.S. viceroy L. Paul Bremer III. Now, the country needs twice that, Ubad said.

That, he concedes, is not possible until new power plants are built and behemoths such as this one, built in 1985 and held together with components from South Korea, Russia and Germany, are back to full speed. As he spoke, smoke puffed from three of the plant's four giant chimneys. The fourth was idle, its associated unit down for maintenance.

Even if the unit comes back online as planned within a couple of months, the plant still won't produce to capacity because of old parts that present maintenance difficulties, the plant's planning manager, Mohammed Ali, said as he walked through a hangar-like room where pigeons perched on the sills of broken windows and signs warned that objects could fall from above.

Nevertheless, the ceremony in a courtyard outside was seen as a huge step forward. A vase of flowers sat on the small table where a U.S. official and a representative of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki conducted the official transfer of responsibility Feb. 22.

One of the Iraqi security officers attending the ceremony was Capt. Qassim Hussein Anad of the 150-member Ministry of Energy security force, which officially took over plant protection. He speaks of Iraqi forces' eagerness to take charge but warns that nothing is certain in a region once so violent that it was dubbed "the triangle of death."

Asked what concerned him most, Anad nodded to the north, toward a region known as the lakes area. "It's an open area," he said, describing it as 60% secured.

Army Lt. Col. Steven Miska, commander of the battalion in charge of the area, acknowledged that the lakes region has remnants of the Al Qaeda in Iraq militant group and that other insurgent activity occurs there. He said that if there were an attack, Iraq's army, police and the ministry security forces would be on the front line. There is a small U.S. outpost across the river; the closest U.S. brigade is about 20 miles away.

A few days earlier, Miska said, Iraqi security forces had demonstrated their readiness by responding rapidly to a nearby suicide bombing that killed 35 people.

"Politically, it's a move in the right direction," Miska said of handing over authority. "It demonstrates their sovereignty if they are in control of security, of power, in their region."

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