Iraqi Power Plant: Overdue, Over Budget

The World Bank estimates adequately rebuilding Iraq's decrepit electrical grid will cost about $27 billion. The U.S. has spent $4 billion toward that goal. Baghdadis still only get an hour of power a day. The Musayyib gas turbine plant has become a parable for Iraq's power problems.

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However The Wall Street Journal covers the news in future years, we can feel ascertain that one of the big stories will be Iraq. More than four years after the start of the U.S. occupation, Baghdad still does not have enough electricity. Residents of the capital get an hour of power per day even though the United States has spent $4 billion on electricity. The World Bank says repairing the whole electrical grid would probably cost $27 billion.

NPR's John Burnett visited Iraq's newest and costliest power project, the Musayyib plant, and he found a parable of Iraq's power problems.

JOHN BURNETT: Later this month, workers of the Ministry of Electricity expect to slaughter a goat and smear its blood on the door of a control room at a large industrial site 40 miles south of Baghdad. It will be a blessing for the startup of a new $300 million gas turbine plant.

Mr. JOHN DISIMONU(ph) (Electrical Engineer): As you can see, this is the jet engine. It's very similar to an aircraft engine, very good piece of machinery.

BURNETT: John Disimonu is the electrical engineer brought in to finish the job and connect what are essentially 747 engines to Iraq's power grid. There are 10 of them in all, each one capable of producing 50 megawatts, enough - the country hopes - to increase the national power supply by 10 percent.

Mr. DISIMONU: Well, we hope to turn it over by August 27th to the Ministry of Electricity operations team, with support from mentoring from our staff, too.

BURNETT: The gas turbine plant and a small onsite refinery are almost complete - years late and millions of dollars over budget. Iraq's Ministry of Electricity blames everything on the Texas contractor that started the project. That company - Southeast Texas Industrial Services, or STIS - claims the Iraqi government signed a contract and then abandoned them.

W.C. Cole, the international division manager, was interviewed at the company headquarters in Buna, Texas, near the Louisiana border.

Mr. W.C. COLE (International Division Manager, Southeast Texas Industrial Services): We would love to have finished this project. We put our heart and soul into it, and we actually lost employees while we were over there.

BURNETT: STIS claims the Iraqi government essentially defaulted on the contract when it didn't pay on time, didn't provide security or secure their transportation to the work site. That resulted, Cole says, in his company losing six Iraqi employees and two sub-contractors to killings and kidnappings, and costing extra millions in expensive security. In January, after negotiations broke down, STIS walked away from the project.

Electricity Minister Karim Alabudi(ph) asserts that STIS was out of its league. It had never built a project this large overseas, which is true. He says it was incompetent to see the project through the completion, and when it did not lived up to its contract, Iraqis were deprived of critically needed electricity.

Mr. KARIM ALABUDI (Electricity Minister, Iraq): They come here with the project, and the Iraqi people suffer from the lack of electricity.

(Soundbite of banging sounds)

BURNETT: Back in the job site, Mohammed Abbas(ph) - a government engineer who's been on the gas turbine project from the beginning - has this to say about the work of STIS.

Mr. MOHAMMED ABBAS (Government Engineer): The installation work is not good, all not good. All the wiring is - thermocouple wiring, many, many problems. Mr. John decided to solve all the problems.

BURNETT: That would be the globetrotting troubleshooter John Disimonu, a former marine from Brooklyn who wears a hardhat with the words lone ranger on the front. He stands to the side, smiling.

Mr. DISIMONU: We try our best.

BURNETT: U.S. officials say the Iraqi government paid STIS about $320 million in all. The U.S. government is now putting up the final $28 million to finish the plant, which was 85 percent complete. But Colonel Mike Moon with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that is now overseeing the project's completion says the contractor carried off vital materials.

Colonel MIKE MOON (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers): When STIS walked away, they were supposed to have left all the plans, all the design, all the software, all the parts that had been paid for - all of the things that engineers need to do to finish up.

BURNETT: STIS denies it made off with blueprints and software. The U.S. State Department has sided with the Iraqi government in the dispute. An electricity consultant at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said in an interview, the feeling around here is that STIS paid a bribe to get the job and that the complexity of the undertaking was way over their heads. W.C. Cole of Southeast Texas Industrial Services called the state department consultant a liar on both counts.

Mr. COLE: Over our head? The United States government has spent billions of dollars over there, and they haven't accomplished what we have done. There's less electricity there than when the war was over. They haven't done anything. That's over our head? They're over their head, is what's happened.

BURNETT: The Texas contractor is now suing the Iraqi government, and Baghdad has countersued. The troubles with STIS have prompted Electricity Minister Karim Alabudi to recently ask the cabinet to investigate other reconstruction contracts signed by his predecessor, who was arrested on corruption charges.

John Burnett, NPR News, Baghdad.

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