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Lack of electricity among biggest failures in Iraqi occupation

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Three months ago, U.S. occupation officials predicted that by June, Iraq would be producing enough electricity to keep the power on for 18 hours a day throughout the country.

They weren't even close.

Electricity in most parts of Iraq is still as sporadic as it's been for the last year—on for a few hours, then off for a few hours. The missed goal is one of the occupation's greatest failures.

Although vast sums of American taxpayers' money will continue to be spent in an effort to turn Iraq's electricity back on, no one's prepared to say when that might happen. An increase in sabotage and violence is the main reason the target was missed, according to a report by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, released this week.

Many Iraqis, unable to believe that the people who ousted their longtime dictator in three weeks can't fix the power grid in 14 months, are convinced that the United States is punishing them by withholding electricity.

"It damages our psychology and puts a strain on the family," said Majid Sadoon, a middle class businessman whose tidy Baghdad apartment contains an air conditioner, a satellite television receiver and a computer with Internet connection, all useless during the blackouts that last as much as half the day.

When the power fails at night—the low temperature is 90 degrees—the apartment becomes an oven and sleep is impossible.

Although coalition officials point out that they're chasing an increasing demand for power as Iraqis purchase more electrical appliances, that doesn't explain why they didn't reach their goal, which was 6,000 megawatts of electric power by June 1.

The power grid has been putting out an average of 4,400 megawatts in the last month, officials said, only slightly exceeding the prewar level despite the expenditure of more than $2 billion so far to restore and improve the system. Since power is distributed equitably across the country these days, that's particularly bad news for 6 million Baghdad residents, most of whom had nearly 24-hour electricity before the war because Saddam Hussein wanted it that way.

U.S. officials say it's unfair to give weight to the complaints of once-privileged Baghdadis, and they have a point. But, according to the GAO report on Iraq reconstruction, electricity in many of Iraq's provinces still had failed to exceed prewar levels as of late May.

The report said the average number of hours of electricity daily as of May 26 was below prewar levels in 13 of 18 provinces and had increased in only two. The other three provinces had shown no change.

Iraq's new prime minister, Iyad Allawi, has estimated that terrorism and sabotage have cost the country as much as four hours of power per day during the sweltering summer heat.

According to the GAO report, the bombs, bullets and beheadings of recent months have kept Western engineers away from job sites, prevented the delivery of vital spare parts and jacked up security costs. Two contractors spent $107.9 million of their $666.5 million electricity-repair contracts on security—nearly $1 out every $6.

The electricity minister, Ayham al Samarie, said Saturday that there'd been 17 attacks on electricity targets in the last two weeks.

The violence isn't the only factor. Electricity reconstruction is proceeding on two tracks involving three U.S. agencies, several multinational companies and thousands of Iraqi engineers. Sometimes things have fallen through the cracks.

Iraqis complain that the Americans sometimes fail to heed local advice about their jerry-built electrical system, which was cobbled back together under United Nations economic sanctions after it was decimated by U.S. bombing in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Reporters got a picture of the challenges last Saturday, when American officials flew them by helicopter to northern Baghdad's al Quds power plant, which is undergoing a $145 million U.S.-funded expansion. Allawi and his electricity chief were to cut the ribbon on the project, which includes six new turbine generators that, when completed, are supposed to boost Iraq's power production by 10 percent.

As they waited for the VIPs, Iraqi plant engineers explained that there was a lot of work left to be done before any of the generators would be ready. One technician, Ibrahim Ahmed, attributed the delay to the fact that experts from General Electric, which manufactured the units, have stayed away from the site since it was hit by mortars in March, injuring three Iraqi workers. The American site manager, Rick Moore of Fluor Corp., declined to comment on that.

The Iraqi plant manager, Waleed Salman, disclosed that an earlier American project to convert the two existing generators from diesel oil to cheaper crude oil hadn't gone according to plan.

The conversion was done at a cost of $3 million from the U.S. Agency for International Development. But after a few days of running on crude, the plant is now operating on diesel again, Salman said, because he doesn't have the spare parts that crude-oil use requires.

"The problem is that they do not actually ask for the advice of the Iraqis on these issues," said Omar Ghiyath, the plant's operations chief, when asked why the conversion had been suspended.

The visit wasn't all doom and gloom, however, and neither is the electricity picture.

Ghiyath and a dozen of his fellow technicians said proudly that they'd never been forced to stay home from work for security reasons.

Unlike so many Iraqis who work closely with Americans, they said they'd never been threatened or attacked for that reason.

"They always call us names, but it's because of the (lack of) electricity, not because of who we work with," Ahmed Salih said.

With another $5.5 billion in American money scheduled to be spent on electricity, officials are confident that things will improve. Occupation officials celebrated when they reached 4,800 megawatts in the last two weeks, the most Iraq has ever produced.

Unfortunately for the Americans, people such as Majid Sadoon and his family don't care about incremental progress. What they want is 24-hour power. Now.

"Our happiness is related to whether the power is on or off," said Sadoon's wife, Sawsan Abdul Jabar. "We are not enjoying our life."

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+electricity

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