Internal Strife Still Plagues Iraq's Power Grid

Over four years after major hostilities ended in the American-led intervention in Iraq, the people of the war-ravaged nation are still having a hard time getting electricity delivered on a reliable basis. Despite an ongoing effort by U.S. military and civilian engineers, in concert with their Iraqi counterparts, the massive job estimated to cost more than US $60 billion has not been able to keep the lights on in much of the country, especially in its capital, Baghdad. A New York Times report filed yesterday says that the latest blow to the official reconstruction effort comes from local authorities, backed by militias, who have decided to stop cooperating in a nationwide scheme to share electricity running through the Iraqi power grid.

In a press conference in Baghdad on Wednesday, according to reporters from the Times, the head of Iraq's electricity ministry surprisingly said that his subordinates have been encountering problems in getting local energy administrators to follow orders to manage power switching stations strung throughout the country for the good of the nation as a whole. Instead, pressure from those in control at the regional level has resulted in municipalities hording the electricity for the use of their own citizens. The Times report states that these local authorities operate under the threat of force from armed gunmen.

Due to a lack of functioning dispatch centers, Karim Wahid, who leads Iraq's central power authority, told reporters that his officials have been trying to control the flow of electricity from huge power plants in the south, north, and west by calling local engineers to request they manually switch the flow of current through power lines. But the workers refuse to follow those orders when the armed groups threaten their lives, Wahi said, and the often isolated stations are abandoned at night and easily manipulated by whoever controls the area.

This latest challenge to the reconstruction of the nation's grid follows a much more intractable problem coming from the insurgents who have been trying to cripple Iraq's central government for years in a ceaseless campaign to undermine the stability of the country, thus pressuring American and coalition forces to withdraw. Routine attacks on the towers that carry power lines into the capital have resulted in conditions that see Baghdad suffering from power outages on a regular basis. These days, the 7 million residents of the ancient capital receive electricity for no more than a few hours a day.

In a separate account earlier this month, a reporter for the Associated Press recounted many of the same facts. The AP report stated that power shortages across the country are the worst since the summer of 2003, shortly after Saddam Hussein was overthrown. It adds:

Power supplies in Baghdad have been sporadic all summer and now are down to just a few hours a day, if that. . . . Karbala province south of Baghdad has been without power for three days, causing water mains to go dry in the provincial capital.

"We no longer need television documentaries about the Stone Age," a resident of Karbala told the AP. "We are actually living in it. We are in constant danger because of the filthy water and rotten food we are having."

About two years ago, IEEE Spectrum Executive Editor Glenn Zorpette traveled through Iraq to witness the work being done to repair the mangled power grid. In the account he brought back, published in a February 2006 cover story, "Re-engineering Iraq", Zorpette wrote: "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." In a bit of prescience, he also noted that not all problems with the Iraqi grid going forward were going to come from the desperate insurgents. "One of the biggest challenges so far has been overcoming the mistrust of electricity officials in governorates far from Baghdad," he wrote back then. "After years of orchestrating blackouts so that Baghdad could have round-the-clock electricity, their allegiances are now often local rather than national."

Next week, we'll feature an update from Zorpette on the ongoing challenges to overcoming the seemingly endless calamities befalling the Iraqi power grid.

[Editor's Note: For a reporter's insight into what it's like to work as an engineer inside Iraq repairing the nation's infrastructure, please see "Working in a War Zone" by Glenn Zorpette.]

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