Iraqi Minister Resigns Over Electricity Shortages

Iraq's electricity minister resigned Monday after violent protests in the South over power cuts. Protesters had been demanding he step down. It's been seven years since the U.S.-led invasion, and there are still electricity shortages in Iraq.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's been seven years since the American invasion of Iraq and Iraqis still can't turn a light on much of the time, or in the scorching heat an air conditioner. The continuing shortage of electricity sparked violent protests as summer arrived, bringing 110 degree days.

It also led to the resignation of Iraq's minister of electricity. One banner held up by a long-suffering protestor called the electricity minister an angel of torture. For more, we reached NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Baghdad. Good morning.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So big protests over the lack of electricity there. And I guess the lack of the ability to stay cool in the summer.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, Renee, as you mentioned, it's been seven years since we've been talking about electricity in Iraq. And if our listeners are sick of hearing about it, can you imagine what the average Iraqis feel about still dealing with these shortages?

There have been protests in the south. The first one was in Basra, the southern oil port city. That turned violent. Yesterday it was in Nasiriyah, Najaf. And cities across the country are planning more.

We are not in full-blown summer yet and temperatures in Baghdad are at about 110. That can reach up to 130 degrees in places like Basra - 130 degrees and no electricity; try to imagine that, imagine the frustration that it's engendering.

MONTAGNE: The electricity minister's resignation in response to all this frustration, and really anger, how significant is that?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's not. Minister Karim Waheed offered himself up as a sacrificial lamb in a way. It was, in effect, an empty gesture. Iraq's parties are locked in endless negotiations at the moment over the formation of a new government. And he was unlikely to have kept his job in any case.

The move was meant to calm tempers, to make the government look like it was taking action of some sort. But again, it really doesn't solve any of the problems and it was fundamentally a meaningless move.

MONTAGNE: Well, take us back then to this lack of electricity. Give us a sense of how people there are living today.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In Baghdad Iraqis are lucky, lucky to get two hours of electricity a day. That's two hours. If they want more, they have to pay for it. Each street has a communal generator, which for a pretty hefty fee will provide more electricity, but only about an additional eight hours or so.

But even with the generators, you can't run air conditioners - only fans at best. So you talk to Iraqis and they just talk about how miserable it is and how it is so difficult for the elderly, the young, or the sick. And now that security has improved in much of the country, people are rightly asking: Why can't you fix this?

MONTAGNE: Well, then let me ask you. Why - why is electricity still so bad?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, I hate to be facetious here, but that is the billion dollar question. And I say billions, because Iraq makes billions of dollars a month in oil revenues. And everyone will give you a different answer as to why electricity is still not fixed.

Corruption, though, is obviously the big deal. And, yes, Iraq's aging grid needs to be revamped. But the U.S. put in tons of money over the past seven years, and still there's only been marginal improvement.

And part of the problem was the way it was done. It was very piecemeal - a boost in one area of the country that didn't do much for the overall electricity grid.

Also, there's the distribution issue. It seems they just dont know how to equitably distribute electricity here. Iraq needs at least double the electricity it now generates, and there's no government right now. Let's see who gets appointed the next electricity minister. Will it be someone with know-how or will it be another political appointee who is there because of a government deal.

And, of course, looking at all of this, the U.S. is walking out of here. Iraqis are going to be getting less and less help from that quarter. So it's a pretty grim picture looking to the months and years ahead.

MONTAGNE: Lourdes, thank you very much.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro speaking to us from Baghdad.

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