It's a power struggle every day

Times Staff Writer

Khitam Radi remembers how excited she was the day her husband took her out to buy their first washing machine.

It was soon after Saddam Hussein's fall. Foreign soldiers, journalists and officials were snapping up her artist husband's paintings as souvenirs. The newlyweds had everything to hope for.

Now, there are days when she hates that machine. With no electricity most of the time to pump water to their apartment, Radi has to wait in line to fill her jerrycans at a communal faucet, haul the water up four flights of stairs and wash her family's clothes by hand.

"I feel like someone is torturing me," she said. "The Americans promised to make our lives better. . . . But after five years, nothing has changed."

Violence may have dropped in Iraq, but the absence of reliable electricity remains one of the bitterest disappointments of the last five years.

The United States has devoted $4.9 billion to improve the power supply since U.S.-led forces invaded in 2003. But most Iraqis can count on only a few hours of electricity a day, especially when demand peaks in the summer and winter.

U.S. and Iraqi officials say progress has been made but warn it will take years to bring Iraq's dilapidated system up to Western standards, an effort made even more challenging by surging demand for electricity in the last five years.

The country's electricity woes long predate this war. The system was heavily damaged during Iraq's eight-year conflict with Iran in the 1980s and during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. It continued to deteriorate the next dozen years under the United Nations embargo, when spare parts were hard to come by.

By 2003, the World Bank estimated that it would cost $20 billion to rehabilitate the electricity network, and the price tag continues to go up. The Iraqi government's current estimate is $27 billion.

U.S. officials never intended to do more than jump-start the process, said Col. Mike Moon, who heads the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' electricity sector in Iraq.

The U.S. investment has added just over 2,200 megawatts to Iraq's generating capacity, which now stands at about 5,500 megawatts.

Five years ago, that would have been enough to cover the country's electricity needs, but demand has increased 125% because Iraqis are buying more energy-intensive devices, said Terrence Barnich, a senior advisor with the U.S. government's Iraq Transition Assistance Office.

Since the fall of Hussein's regime, Iraq has been flooded with cheap electrical imports from China, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. Already, stacks of fans, water-based air coolers and refrigerators are displayed in front of stores in anticipation of summer, when temperatures can approach 120 degrees.

Adding generating capacity has helped, but the amount of power produced on any given day rarely reaches peak potential. For a start, keeping the turbines spinning requires fuel. Iraq has the world's second-largest proven oil reserves, but its refining capabilities are limited and its power plants are beset by fuel shortages. Oil and electricity installations are also constantly attacked, creating disruptions that can destabilize the entire network.

Nearly 1,200 electricity employees have been kidnapped or killed or have fled the country since 2003, Electricity Minister Karim Waheed told reporters in August.

"We cannot ask our employees to work in certain parts of Iraq due to the insecurity," he said. "I mean, they are workers. They are not army soldiers."

Despite those setbacks, electricity production averaged 4,380 megawatts a day in the last quarter of 2007, enough to meet nearly half of the national demand, according to a report by the U.S. special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.

But how much electricity is available to consumers varies greatly. Priority is given to essential services such as hospitals, police stations, fire stations and water treatment and sewage plants. So nearby homes and businesses enjoy a near-continuous supply of power.

Government offices and universities are in the next category. "Then there is everybody else," Moon said. "They are the first ones to lose power."

The pain of frequent outages is felt most acutely in Baghdad, which received 16 to 24 hours of power a day before 2003.

Hussein diverted electricity from the provinces to keep the capital fully powered, but the current government is striving for a more equitable distribution across the country. That means that Baghdad receives less power while the rest of the country typically receives more.

Baghdad also suffers disproportionately from the effects of the violence. Most of Iraq's power is generated in the north and south of the country, and the towers supporting the lines that bring electricity to the capital are frequent targets.

To make matters worse, some parts of the country are taking more than their share of electricity before it reaches Baghdad. With no central means to control the flow of electricity from far-flung power stations, officials in Baghdad must get on the phone with their provincial counterparts and ask them to flip a switch to redirect power to the capital. Often they refuse, Waheed said.

In some cases, this is a result of a sense of entitlement on the part of provinces that were starved of power under Hussein.

But employees at local control stations are also at the mercy of armed gangs who force them to keep power flowing to their areas, Waheed said. He singled out the cities of Basra, Mosul and Baqubah as among the worst culprits.

As temperatures rise after an unusually cold winter, pressure is easing on the national grid and Baghdad residents are enjoying 10 to 14 hours of power a day. But the supply is unpredictable.

When the lights suddenly come on, Radi jumps up from the table where she has been chatting with a visitor and starts stuffing clothes into the washing machine in hopes of getting a load done before losing power again. She then switches on the TV so her two toddlers can watch cartoons, and she can relax. But the certainty that they will soon be sweating through the summer keeps the family from fully enjoying this respite.

Most families supplement their meager electricity supply with power from a generator. Few can afford the fuel to run their own, but in most neighborhoods an entrepreneur will sell them a few extra hours of power from a shared generator for about $50 a month. But even that's too expensive for Radi's family.

She says she doesn't even bother putting food into the refrigerator anymore; it would just spoil. Instead, she buys blocks of ice, which she breaks into chips to fill a cooler. On hot summer nights, she and her family curl up on the roof to catch the evening breeze. But even there, it is sometimes too stifling to sleep.

"I feel sick just thinking about it," Radi said.

To help meet the summer demand, Waheed has been negotiating deals to buy electricity from Iran and Turkey, and diesel to keep his plants running.

Taking advantage of the improved security, the ministry's crews have been making much-needed repairs to the lines that bring power to the capital.

For the first time in five years, Moon said, "I think it could be a very bearable summer."

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

Times staff writer Usama Redha in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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