Limits of power: keeping the lights on in Iraq
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has currently completed 220 of 520 projects in Iraq.

BAGHDAD - Everybody knows the bad news: In September, the lights were on in Baghdad for around four hours a day. One study has October's levels so far at 2.4, the lowest since the invasion. A lot of Iraqi public opinion runs on rumors, and those with their ears pricked will tell you that after three-plus years and billions of reconstruction dollars, there's a sneaking suspicion out in town that the U.S., who's been putting men in orbit for four decades, could have had Baghdad twinkling like Times Square years ago if they wanted to. The conspiracy theory goes that the Americans have, insidiously, chosen not to. That they're keeping Iraqis down, man. Either that, or we just don't care.

So the big question at Saturday's Iraqi media roundtable on electricity, hosted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Gulf Regional Division, was -- translated roughly from the Arabic -- "It's been three years and $4 billion. What gives'"

Leaning slowly forward to take it was Al Herman, a senior consultant with the State Department's Iraq Reconstruction Management Office (IRMO) who works in Iraq with the Ministry of Electricity on project management and system planning. Herman has rebuilt and rehabbed electricity grids in 36 countries in 30 years -- if he just didn't care, he'd probably have retired by now. And if he was evil (colleagues have nicknamed him "The Prince of Darkness," but that's just blackout humor), well, he'd probably have gotten himself an easier job.

But he sure had an answer.

"Nine of the transmission lines bringing power into Baghdad have been interdicted. Blown up. Down and out." If those lines were up and operating, Herman said, Baghdad would have in excess of 12 hours of power per day. "The minister and his people have tried on numerous occasions to repair these lines. They keep getting attacked, killed, kidnapped and threatened."

Security trumps a lot in Baghdad. And as far as infrastructure targets go, the transmission towers and wires that bring power into the capital make fairly juicy ones. They're exposed. They're pretty fragile. A tower, Herman explained, is easy to find, easy to knock down and not too hard to put back up. The bad guys can demonstrate their disruptive abilities, keep MoE manpower tied up and keep Baghdad dark without, say, taking out an entire power plant - which would make it spectacularly obvious that they, and not U.S. or Iraqi incompetence, are to blame for the lights being out.

"It's a game of cat and mouse," Herman said. "We're hoping over the next few months that we will be able to repair most of these lines and get them up and operating. And we need the help of all Iraqis in keeping them up and operating."

But there's more to the story than violence. Baghdad is also short on power because the rest of Iraq's population is enjoying levels of electricity it's never seen before.

Electricity and politics do tend to function in tandem. A light switch may not care who's flipping it, but the way infrastructure is distributed in a nation is a pretty reliable sign of where, well, where the power lies. Under Saddam Hussein, the lights in Baghdad were on all day and night. Favored Baathists were even allowed air conditioners and satellite TVs. Outside the capital' They got the scraps.

But just as the new Iraq constitution has devolved much political power away from the capital, reconstruction efforts have focused on making sure the spoils of power are spread around too. So even as demand for electricity - those now-legal air-conditioners and satellite TVs, and the momentum of consumerism - has risen steadily since the invasion, three-quarters of Iraqis have twice as much power as they did before the war.

"Under Saddam Hussein, Baghdad pulled its power away from the rest of Iraq. We've gone to a policy to try and equitably distribute that power across the country," Army Col. Jon Christensen, GRD's electricity sector director, said. "So now, outside of Baghdad, they have gone from zero in some cases, up to twelve or fourteen hours of power a day."

Overall, the GRD has started 520 electricity-related projects and completed 220 of them so far. The peak generation capacity of Iraq's nationwide network is now 4,500 megawatts -- still short of the goal of 6,000 megawatts, but higher than the pre-war levels of 4,200. And much better-distributed, by much better equipment.

"Unfortunately," said the colonel, "Baghdad has paid the price for that."

So what's next' In the short term, Col. Christensen focuses his smaller projects in specific areas after they have been cleared by Baghdad Security Plan operations - moving as quickly as possible to take advantage of the drop in violence after an operation moves through (and trying to demonstrate to citizens that U.S. and Iraqi officials have more on their minds than checkpoints and house searches). And Herman has plans to "harden" the transmission towers, along with other measures, to make the "weak links" of Baghdad's power chain a little harder to snap.

But the longer-term vision, Herman said, is for IRMO and the MoE to spend 2007 putting Baghdad on its own power footing, with more generation and more facilities in the so-called "Baghdad Ring," so that there's no chain to break. "We don't want the over-reliance on the grid that Baghdad has now," he said.

As with just about everything else the U.S. is trying to do in Iraq, IRMO, USAID and GRD are fast turning the job of building, maintaining, and fueling an Iraqi electricity system worthy of the 21st century over to the Iraqis. GRD expects to complete its remaining 300 construction projects in the next year or two. USAID, after contributing 1,292 megawatts of generation (half from new plants and half from rehabilitated ones) to this point, will devote its efforts for the next few years to training Iraqi workers and contractors to maintain and repair modern turbine generation systems that they haven't seen before. Although Herman likes what he's seen in the MoE and its engineers so far.

"When they go out and repair transmission lines, they do a marvelous job, even compared to what we do in the United States. They are actually quicker at recovering from blackouts than we are in the United States," he said. "They have experience in this."

The future, the Prince of Darkness said, "looks brighter." But bringing twenty-four hours of power to all 18 provinces will take "anywhere from $20-30 billion over the next seven years," and with the U.S. no longer budgeting for new construction, that money will have to come from the Iraqis.

Even if the security situation were to improve overnight - "If you can promise me no one will come and blow up the transmission lines, I can promise you we'll get power into Baghdad," Herman said at one point -- Iraqis who may have expected miracles when the U.S. arrived in March 2003 are going to have to settle for the best we can do in the time we've had. In the reality we found here.

"What you need to understand," Herman told the journalists, "is that the $4 billion that we have spent on electricity here in Iraq in the three years has done nothing more than what I would call kick-starting the system."

"You don't rebuild an electric system as bad as this one was, in a short period of time."

Turns out electricity in Iraq is pretty much like, well, like everything else in Iraq. Held hostage in Baghdad. Better in the rest of the country. A long way and a lot of work from reaching first-world standards, but all in all, far from hopeless. Yet rapidly proving that even the mighty Americans will need the Iraqis to finish the job.

Heck, it took us almost a decade just to put a man on the moon.

Page last updated Mon October 23rd, 2006 at 10:33