Saboteurs Undermining Efforts in Iraq, U.S. Says

Times Staff Writer

From attacking American soldiers to sabotaging Iraq’s power grid, well-armed remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime are waging a campaign that is stalling the United States’ reconstruction efforts and undermining popular support for its presence in Iraq, senior U.S. civilian and military officials here say.

“There are still regime elements out there that are actively, aggressively seeking to impede, discredit or disrupt coalition operations,” Army Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, said Wednesday. “They destroy infrastructure repairs made by the coalition and the Iraqis.”

So effective is the campaign that McKiernan signaled that it may prolong the U.S. military presence here. “They are committed to a long fight that will complicate the mission of the coalition,” he said. “We will stay until a secure environment is achieved.”

Although McKiernan gave no specifics on the campaign, senior U.S. advisors and mid-level military commanders in recent days have likened it to guerrilla warfare and said the nation’s power grid is a key battleground.

Restoring electricity to Iraq is crucial to U.S. efforts to win the peace. Iraqi and American engineers are working alongside contractors from San Francisco-based Bechtel Group to repair the grid, but officials say they have been plagued by sabotage, attacks and thefts by hard-line members of Hussein’s Baath Party.


In the last two weeks, officials said, saboteurs have shot out key insulators and power lines using AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, looted critical parts from power plants and relay stations, stolen more than 40 cars from the national Electricity Commission, carjacked one of its commissioners at gunpoint and staged night looting raids on construction sites for 26 new transmission towers needed to restore the backbone of Iraq’s power grid.

The lack of full electrical service is the single-biggest cause of delays in the effort to rebuild the oil-rich country and win the public’s confidence, say U.S. officials and a broad sampling of Iraqis.

Hours-long blackouts have encouraged a crime wave that is plaguing the capital. The crippled grid also is to blame for the maddening, mile-long lines to buy gasoline.

Most of the nation’s power plants run on fuel oil or diesel, which are byproducts of making gasoline. The oil refineries can produce only limited quantities of gasoline now because their pipelines and storage tanks are full and there’s nowhere to put fuel oil and diesel that is being made but not used.

“They want to keep the chaos going. It’s a way to leverage and retake power,” said Jim Lanier, the U.S. Agency for International Development official in charge of Iraq’s power sector, in blaming Baathist saboteurs for delaying repairs. “Their strategy is, ‘Let’s keep the coalition crippled.’ They know what they’re doing.”

McKiernan said it isn’t clear whether the resistance is centrally organized but that it includes “Baathist hard-liners, perhaps [secret police], perhaps Fedayeen.” The Fedayeen Saddam was a black-uniformed militia loyal to Hussein.

“It’s like an insurgency,” said Col. David Perkins, who commands the U.S. Army brigade that took Baghdad more than a month ago and has been trying to hunt down the regime’s remnants.

“The process of de-Baathification of the members of the party who want this [reconstruction] to fail is one of the most critical things we can do,” Perkins said. “It’s a huge task, validating who’s who. We’re trying to stand back up a country. We’re trying to build goodwill with a country we just invaded and killed a lot of their people.”

Perkins and other commanders have teamed up with Iraqis who worked within the former regime to track down not only the 55 ex-officials on the United States’ most-wanted “black list” but also more than 3,000 others on a “gray list.”

Two Iraqis who have helped capture some of the most-wanted independently told The Times that members of Hussein’s intelligence agencies and other Baathists are regrouping and staging attacks, from armed robberies and rapes to the raids on the power system. Scores of Iraqis interviewed in Baghdad in the last two weeks say the intelligence agents and party leaders who terrorized them for years remain in their houses and move about the city, heavily armed, with impunity.

‘Hateful People’

Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who has led the overall Iraq war effort, has outlawed the Baath Party, and senior U.S. civilian advisors shepherding in a new government are requiring candidates for key jobs to resign from the party and renounce it.

Educated middle-class Iraqis say purging the Baathists is essential to America’s image.

“We thought that when the Americans came, all of the Baathists would be arrested,” said Sajda Nasser, a teacher at Baghdad’s Secondary School for Girls. “They are hateful people and they are still among us, terrorizing our neighborhoods and streets. The other day, I saw the Baathists stealing weapons from the National Security College. We are all still afraid.”

Although McKiernan characterized the threat from Baathist holdouts as the most serious law enforcement issue facing coalition forces, he acknowledged that basic street crime also is a major problem. The U.S. intends to have 4,000 military police patrolling the city with Iraqi police by June 1, he said.

In the meantime, the lawlessness has kept out many of the U.S. contractors that the development agency, known as USAID, hired to do about $1 billion in civilian reconstruction work. The agency’s contracts require “a permissive environment” before the agency will let them into the country, and areas such as Baghdad remain largely off-limits.

The result is a vicious cycle of instability. “It’s not going to get any more permissive than it is now until we get some of those projects up and running,” Perkins said.

USAID has waived the “permissive environment” requirement for such urgent work as recreating the power grid. Bechtel, which won a contract worth at least $680 million to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure to prewar levels, sent a small team of engineers to Baghdad eight days ago to join the effort.

Working under a separate grants program, the development agency also has committed more than $10 million to small emergency reconstruction projects nationwide, largely using Iraqi contractors.

A small agency team launched a garbage collection and sewer-repair project Wednesday in the Baghdad slum formerly known as Saddam City. It is paying Iraqi companies to make repairs to looted and fire-gutted ministry buildings. And it rushed supplies to a dam in Mosul to keep it from shutting down and risking a breach.

“Basically, it’s a Band-Aid,” said Fritz Weden, who is running the team from a room in the former Hussein palace that now houses the Pentagon agency set up to rebuild Iraq.

“It’s all about the provision of basic needs and services,” he said. “If the Iraqi people don’t feel like these are being restored in a timely fashion, they’re going to be that much more restless.”

Baghdad’s most basic need at the moment is electricity. The capital is subject to blackouts and is getting only about half the power it had before the war.

“We have always considered the United States a superpower capable of anything and we expected them to get the power back on right away,” Aneeba Jabar, director of a local orphanage, said. “But it’s been more than a month now, and still we’re in darkness most of the night.”

Lanier, a retired Texas utilities engineer, said it wasn’t clear that coalition military action was to blame for knocking out the country’s power grid.

“Towers were damaged, destroyed or collapsed during the war,” he said. “There was no targeting by the coalition, but whether it was collateral damage or sabotage, we just don’t know.”

Baghdad was without power when Perkins’ 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division captured Hussein’s main palaces and other seats of power in April.

Army engineers working with Iraqi Electricity Commission technicians restored partial power to the city within days. Army Corps of Engineers assessment teams fanned out across the country and identified the key towers and relay stations that had to be repaired to restore the national grid.

British engineers in Basra repaired the nation’s southern grid in a matter of weeks. Last weekend, the city had 24-hour-a-day electricity for the first time in 12 years, after an era under U.N. sanctions during which the regime took power from the south to ensure round-the-clock electricity in the capital.

But because the national grid remains down, none of Basra’s power can be shared with Baghdad until 26 critical transmission towers scattered throughout the country, part of a nationwide network of 6,000, are restored.

40 Cars Lost

Peter Gibson, an Army Corps of Engineers civilian who is serving as senior U.S. advisor to Iraq’s Electricity Commission, described strategic theft and vandalism as “one of our most serious problems.”

“The Iraqis and our contractors are afraid of leaving their equipment out there for fear it will be looted,” he said. “We’ve lost 40 cars in the last two weeks. We’ve had people shot. It’s all coordinated and designed to slow us down.

“Some of it is little stuff,” Gibson said. “People will lasso a transformer on a pole and pull it down just to get the copper out of it and sell it. But the worst of it is organized and targeted.”

Gibson and Lanier said they hoped to restore full power to the capital in two weeks. “By June 1, we should have the system tied back together,” Gibson said, “depending on the vandalism.”

McKiernan said at a Wednesday news conference at Baghdad’s convention center that the coalition is importing more than 1.5 million gallons of gasoline to Baghdad to at least ease the fuel shortages.

But, in a sign of the times, as he answered a question about the long lines of motorists waiting to buy gasoline, the power failed in the center and everything went black.