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Murder leaves Iraq's electricity workers shaken

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Haifa Aziz Daoud, nicknamed "The Iron Woman" of Iraq's electricity industry, managed the Karkh Electrical Distribution Complex, which provides power to Baghdad neighborhoods north of the Tigris River. A mother of six, she earned that moniker working tirelessly to restore Baghdad's fragile electricity supply.

Last week, a man rang her doorbell at 7 a.m. and said he needed help with an electricity problem. When Daoud appeared at the gate, she was shot in the chest three times with a Russian-made pistol, and fell dead into her 17-year-old daughter's arms. Neighbors said three men then drove away in a Toyota pickup truck that bore blue government plates.

Her murder has gruesomely complicated the already immense challenge of rehabilitating Iraq's power grid.

"I was sleeping upstairs in our bedroom when I heard the shots. I ran to her and tried to help her breathe, but she was dead," said her husband, Raid Hussan, as he wept in the family's living room and ushered his 3-year-old daughter from the room.

"She was the best, and because they want the worst for Iraq they killed the best."

Daoud's killers, still unknown, are on the loose. But the circumstances of her murder suggest that Iraqi civilians, not just U.S. soldiers, may now be the targets of assassination by terrorists or supporters of Saddam Hussein's deposed regime.

"All of the people who work in the electricity industry are afraid," said Sayd Khalb Baker, Daoud's deputy and close friend. "The people who are sabotaging substations and power lines are the people who killed the manager of our office. The fear of death follows us along the day."

It's an unfortunate time for electricity workers to be hesitant about doing their jobs.

U.S. officials say there was virtually no regular maintenance or improvements to the grid for more than 30 years, which means the system is fragile and vulnerable to glitches. Much of its technology is antiquated, and spare parts come from a hodgepodge of countries, mainly Russia, China and Germany.

And to the extent that a spate of well-aimed attacks on Iraq's infrastructure—from oil pipelines to water and power lines—is aimed at undermining confidence in American-led efforts to rebuild the war-torn country, it has been very effective.

"In Baghdad, we are receiving about 7,000 megawatts where it was getting 12,000 before the attacks," said Maj. Gen. Carl Strock of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "We suffered a Mosul-to-Nasiriyah blackout a few days ago due to a sabotage of the transmission lines. The Electricity Commission crews repaired the line and restored limited service the next day, but the line was attacked again, this time by damage to a tower."

Baghdad residents are fuming about the lack of regular power. Because their houses are too hot, families regularly sleep on rooftops, which offer mild breezes. Men in the streets pour bottled water over their heads, and everyone mops the sweat from necks and faces with handkerchiefs. The phrase "Weyn Karabha?"—"Where is the electricity?" in Arabic—is a constant question.

John Sawers, the British ambassador who is the deputy of the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority, said the sabotage began after coalition forces began to crack down on resisters, who then turned to hit soft targets.

"I think that blowing up electricity pylons and assassinating ... mothers ... who happen to work in the electricity industry to intimidate others, I think that's going for pretty soft targets," Sawers said. "Yes, of course, we can't go around guarding every pylon. We can't go around giving protection for every employee working in the electricity industry. But what we can do is make it clear who is responsible, isolate them from their own community and end up arresting them."

Proposals are flying about how to improve security. American soldiers regularly guard most power plants, and some people say the coalition forces should patrol transmission lines in the countryside by helicopter and shoot at any looters from the air.

"Some people are convinced that Americans are withholding the power on purpose," said Lt. William Perry of the 82nd Airborne Division. Perry oversees security at Baghdad's Dora Power Plant, and is training Iraqis to take more of a role in watching the facility. "I keep telling them that I've got a wife and three kids at home in Maine, and that the quicker this gets fixed the sooner I'll be able to go home."

But while security at key facilities across Iraq is crucial, many of the 39,000 electrical workers in the country are focused on their personal safety.

"People threaten us all the time," said Samir Kadum, an engineer who knew Daoud. "Maybe they are just angry because they don't have electricity. But maybe there is another reason. I want to wear a bulletproof vest. We need bodyguards!"

Nida Ismail, a civil engineer, said she sometimes drove behind American tanks so that she would be protected. But now she wonders if that's more dangerous.

"They think we are working for the Americans, not Iraqis," said Ismail, who said Daoud was a role model for other female engineers. "But we don't have electricity in our houses either. We are working for Iraqis. All of the female engineers are afraid. No one wants to come to work. But we can't do anything. We trust in Allah to watch over us."

Daoud is buried in Mosul, where her family lives. Her mother is Iraqi and her father is Lebanese, and before she was killed her husband urged her to go to Lebanon.

"Sometimes she would come home from work angry and upset," Hussan said. "She heard some people say things like `See that woman? She shook hands with the Americans.' I was worried for her safety. I kept telling her let's go to Lebanon for a few weeks. I pressed her to go, but she said no. She felt that she had too much work to do."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-ELECTRICITY