Power Outages Remain the Norm in Iraq

The United States has devoted $3.4 billion to improve the power supply in Iraq since the 2003 invasion. But most Iraqis can still count on only a few hours of electricity a day. Botched plans, corruption and unreasonable expectations lay behind a fragile, overloaded system.

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The United States has devoted $3.4 million to improve the power supply in Iraq since the 2003 invasion. But most Iraqis can still count on only a few hours of electricity a day. It's a story of botched plans, corruption and unreasonable expectations.

NPR's Anne Garrels reports.

ANNE GARRELS: Adnan Ishmael Cidic's(ph) family gets city power for only an hour a day. It relies on a local generator for a few hours more.

(Soundbite of banging)

GARRELS: His daughter-in-law quickly does the dishes knowing that water will soon run out when the power does. The rest of the family watches TV, taking turns to quickly bathe.

(Soundbite of engine running)

GARRELS: The generator can run a hair dryer but it's not enough to run an air conditioner. A washing machine sits idle.

Mr. ADNAN ISHMAEL CIDIC (Iraqi Resident): I'm unable to do anything. It's like a joke.

GARRELS: After five years this frail old man is in despair.

Mr. CIDIC: We hear so many promises. I don't believe anything now.

GARRELS: American officials came into Iraq with big promises. As a first step, U.S. officials distributed what power there was more equitably. Terry Barnich is a senior advisor with the U.S. government's Iraq Transition Assistance office.

Mr. TERRY BARNICH (Senior Advisor, Iraq Transition Assistance Office): The system was designed and operated to give Baghdad 24/7 and to hell with the rest of the country. When we came in, in 2004, we decided that there should be a much more equitable allocation of power. That's one of the reasons the people in Baghdad are so upset. Because, historically speaking, they're used to power almost all the time.

GARRELS: But no one is happy now. Some parts of the country are stealing more than their share of electricity. Stations are supposed to turn off customers on a schedule, but Barnich says operators are threatened or bribed to keep the power going.

Mr. BARNICH: There are criminal factions. There are, I would imagine, sectarian factions that are still out there who are trying to reward their friends and punish their enemies by intimidation.

GARRELS: The result: the fragile system is overloaded and frequently blows.

Mr. BARNICH: Starts to, what we call, trip the machines and turns these generators off. And you end up with brownouts and blackouts.

GARRELS: These repeated blackouts have severely damaged an already precarious system. Twelve years of sanctions crippled the country, yet when U.S. officials arrived they were stunned at how dilapidated the infrastructure was. And they weren't prepared for the looting, which destroyed the power grid even more. A lack of security, that allowed saboteurs to regularly blow up transition towers.

Last year Iraq finally produced more power than before the war. Five years ago that increase would have been enough to cover the country's needs. But demand has increased 125 percent because now that sanctions have been lifted, Iraqis are buying appliances.

Initial plans to improve electricity were based on poor intelligence. The U.S. put in easily-installed combustion turbines, but this was based on the assumption there would be natural gas to run them efficiently. There is gas in Iraq but no way to capture and use it.

There should be enough petroleum fuel to power existing plants but the oil ministry will not supply it, preferring instead to export it or, in some cases, steal it. U.S. officials have made little progress in their efforts to stop ministerial in-fighting and corruption.

The U.S. also bought 20 huge generators to provide additional power. After two years they're still sitting at the Jordanian port of Aqaba, caught up in a web of corruption, government disputes, poor planning and security problems. And even when they finally arrive there may not be enough fuel to run them.

Terry Barnich acknowledges the early, frequent rotation of U.S. advisors did not help matters.

Mr. BARNICH: There has not been a good continuum of institutional record-keeping and memory.

GARRELS: The U.S. is no longer providing large amounts of money. With billions in the bank, Barnich says it's now up to the Iraqis to build their own infrastructure. Even with a government that can function, it will take years.

Mr. BARNICH: I think a year from now we'll be incrementally better than we are today and it'll get better progressively over the next five to ten years.

GARRELS: That's chilling news for Iraqis who must anticipate another sweltering summer. And according to Barnich, many more to come.

Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.

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