"We had an incident", the engineer tells me.
These four words get your attention in Iraq.
We're in the northern outskirts of Baghdad, in a spotless white conference room at the new Quds power station. We're out in the Red Zone, the area surrounding central Baghdad's massively guarded Green Zone enclave. There are probably people nearby, perhaps as close as the sprawling crude-oil pumping facility across the road, who would kill us if they got the chance. That's why we've arrived at the plant in two convoys, each with three heavily armored SUVs and a security contingent of eight men outfitted with assault rifles, grenades, body armor, radios, electronic beacons, navigational and medical equipment, and other gear.
It's a lot of men, guns, and hardware for a routine meeting at a power plant. But the statistics bear out the caution. As of this past November, at least 412 civilian contractors had been killed in Iraq, according to U.S. Department of Labor figures cited in a recent report to the U.S. Congress. Scores more had been injured or kidnapped and released. The contractors included all kinds of workers: engineers, security agents, truck drivers, even cooks.
To put the figures in perspective, there are well over a thousand engineers in Iraq working on reconstruction, [see " "] several thousand if you include military and Iraqi engineers. About 2000 of some 3200 projects have been completed, according to U.S. government figures released this past autumn. The projects range from the refurbishment of schoolrooms to the construction of airfields and huge new transmission substations. As of fall 2005, the United States had spent or committed more than US $20 billion to the effort, other countries had pledged $13.6 billion, and Iraq itself had contributed about $24 billion, including seized assets of Saddam Hussein.
It would be hard to find another endeavor, anywhere, anytime, in which so much was asked of engineers, personally and professionally. Never before has so vast a reconstruction program been attempted in the face of enemy fire or managed in the shadow of geopolitics, where infrastructure itself became a battleground.
Insurgents were blowing up electrical transmission towers at an average rate of two a day this past August, and Iraqi workers and foreign contractors were risking their lives to put them back up. Throughout reconstruction, projects have gotten funds, lost them, and sometimes even gotten them back again, according to changes in the prevailing political winds. Generating plants have been built that can't be fueled; a water pumping station repaired for $225 million was rendered useless by countless leaks in the pipes connected to it. Five distribution substations were built for $28.8 million, but they'll sit idle for years because the infrastructure to tap into them hasn't been started yet.
These are the kind of developments that compelled me to come here, not only to Iraq, but to this particular power plant. Its technology and its array of problems make the Quds power plant emblematic of the potential and pitfalls of the electrical reconstruction so far. Even the morning's ride out to the plant is a quick lesson in the logistics of getting around Iraq. Before stepping into the armored vehicles, I give my full name, Social Security number, and blood type to the leader of our security team, who dutifully files the information for use in the event that the morning's ride doesn't go well. Then I wriggle into my body armor and don a Kevlar helmet for the 45-minute ride out to the plant.
Around the time we pass through a checkpoint and leave the Green Zone, security agents in the engineer's convoy, which had left about a half-hour ahead of mine, are shooting out the radiator of a car that had aggressively approached the convoy, ignoring repeated warnings to back off. The rear SUV in the three-vehicle convoy had the standard orange warning, in big Arabic script as well as in English, telling drivers to stay at least 100 meters from the vehicle. When cars got too close, a security agent in the rear SUV went through a series of actions to try to get the driver's attention: first waving an orange flag, then firing a small incendiary known as a pin flare at the road in front of the oncoming car, and then firing warning shots into the air. But one driver kept closing in on the trailing SUV. The next step in the sequence was firing at the radiator until the car stopped. The car's driver wasn't hurt; indeed, he is even eligible to file a claim for compensation for the damage to his car.
All of the money pledged so far for Iraq's reconstruction adds up to roughly $60 billion, according to a report last July by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). U.S. officials whom I interviewed in Iraq this past October said that the current consensus was that the final tally might be as high as $100 billion. For comparison, in the first two years of their reconstruction after being devastated in wars, Germany, Japan, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan together received a total of $25.6 billion, in 2003 dollars, according to the United States Institute of Peace, a congressionally created organization devoted to conflict resolution. The first European Recovery Program, known as the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt much of Western Europe after World War II, spent the equivalent of about $90 billion in today's dollars between 1948 and 1951.
The huge reconstruction program in Iraq has five main parts: security and justice; electricity; water; oil; and a catch-all category that includes transportation, telecommunications, buildings, health, and education.
According to last summer's GAO report, some $5.7 billion had been spent on work in the electrical sector in the two years prior to spring 2005. That total included $4.9 billion in U.S.-appropriated funds and $816 million in Iraqi money. What that investment bought was, among other things, the addition or restoration of several thousand megawatts of generating capacity (although at any given time less than half of it is actually available on the grid), several hundred kilometers of new or refurbished transmission lines, one new and one rebuilt transmission substation, and 44 new or improved distribution substations.
Still, there's a long way to go. According to the latest figures, the country's 173 generating units, spread among some 35 power plants, can reliably produce just under 5000 MW at peak periods. That falls well short of peak demand, which was estimated to be 8845 MW last summer and is expected to be 10 000 MW next summer.
Most officials, Iraqis included, agree that there is more power available in Iraq now than there was before the 2003 war. However, that fact is less germane than most people realize, because the allocation of electric power has shifted seismically, and more or less in sync with the shift in political power. Basically, parts of Baghdad and central Iraq now get much less power than they did before the war, while parts of the south and north actually get considerably more.
For many years, the mainstays of Iraq's electrical capacity were steam generating plants near the huge oil fields in the south and hydroelectric plants in the Kurdish regions in the north [see map, " "]. Relatively few plants were concentrated around Baghdad, where most of the demand was. So to keep parts of the city energized close to 24 hours a day, as Saddam wished them to be, operators had to black out different parts of the Shiite south and Kurdish north on a rotating schedule.
Rotating blackouts are still a way of life in Iraq's electrical sector, but now they're not done for Baghdad's benefit. The city still gets about half of its power from the north and south, but these days city residents get anywhere from 6 to 9 hours of electricity a day, compared with about 15 hours for people living in Basra.
In the most recent survey by the International Republican Institute, a prodemocracy advocacy group in Washington, D.C., 2200 Iraqis were asked which of 10 different problems "requiring a political or governmental solution" was most important to them. The first choice, by a margin of about 10 percent, was "inadequate electricity." "National security" came in fifth; the "presence of multinational forces" was seventh; and "terrorists" was eighth.
A popular if not universal idea is that a more robust electrical system would be a weapon against the insurgency; it's a concept the insurgents themselves have helped propagate by focusing so many of their attacks on the electrical infrastructure. Counterinsurgency, it has been said, can't really succeed without successful efforts to improve a country's political and economic base. And few analysts dispute the idea that one of the key obstacles to further economic progress in Iraq is its inadequate electrical system.
"If the electricity problem were to be resolved, it would be the catalyst for economic growth," an IEEE member in Iraq writes in an e-mail. "Social problems would ease tremendously, as power would be available during the extreme summer heat and for cooking and TV (allowing more access to news and international programs)," he adds. The member is an electrical engineer who has worked in Iraq on and off for two years under a contract with a U.S. government agency. (Like many other sources for this article, he would comment only on condition of anonymity.)