Key test in Iraq: Is the power on?

The US scrambles to increase hours of power to Iraqi homes.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It is the Cadillac of electrical plants, new and sophisticated and reflected in the pride of the local security guards hired to protect it. When it's turned on, providing enough power to run roughly the equivalent of 400,000 Iraqi homes, the Musayyib gas power plant will provide a large boost in the US military's campaign to restore basic services to Baghdad and, it hopes, quell the insurgency there.

But in Iraq, it seems, nothing is simple. Lack of fuel and parts, and poor Iraqi governance, have kept the Musayyib plant's 10 jet-engine-sized turbines off-line. It is emblematic of the large challenges facing the military's most important noncombat counterinsurgency tool: the provision of clean water, working sewage systems, and electric power to a population hungry for them.

US officials have long maintained that if Iraqis had these basic services, they would be less inclined to support the insurgency. Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the No. 2 US commander in Iraq, sees electricity as the No. 1 priority.

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"We now need to start to improve the basic services," General Odierno said while in Washington last month. "If we can do that, I think we will see a tipping point" in Iraqi tolerance of the US occupation and support for the current Iraqi regime, he said.

The hours of power that Iraqis receive each day has fluctuated since the US invasion in 2003. In March of that year, the average Iraqi had between four and eight hours of electricity per day, according to a study by the Brookings Institution in Washington. In March 2004, Iraqis had as many as 16 hours of power per day. Since then, however, that average has dipped again to as low as eight hours. In September, according to the study, Iraqis had nearly 12 hours of power per day.

To get power, many Iraqis string wires from their homes to truck-size generators that sit on street corners. But US and Iraqi officials aim to get most Iraqis on the country's power grid. The average household in Baghdad gets just about eight hours of electricity per day – the lowest amount in any province.

US officials are furiously trying to raise those numbers even as Iraqis scramble to buy new air conditioners, refrigerators, and electronic devices that create all the more demand.

The unfinished Musayyib plant sits by itself in an agrarian area south of the city. It has been plagued by a shortage of fuel to run it, in part because the Ministry of Oil is focused on exporting fuel to raise revenues instead of using it at home. And it has ignored infrastructure problems, says Col. Mike Moon, director of electrical-sector development for the Gulf region of the US Army Corps of Engineers. Parts to build it are hard to come by at a time when large industrial countries like China and India seek to expand their own power networks.

"You don't just go down to Auto Zone and get a transformer," says Colonel Moon. "They cost a million dollars."

Controversy has dogged the plant since 2006, when Southeast Texas Industrial Services, the US-based firm that won the $350 million contract to build it, walked off the job, citing security concerns and lack of Iraqi government support, Moon says. The US government is spending another $28 million to finish the project, which includes "commissioning" each of the remaining turbines not already running and completing a portion of the plant that will separate crude oil and leave higher-quality fuel on which the plant can run.

Terrorism and sabotage, aging equipment, and "overwhelmed repair crews" also impede overall progress with Iraq's power grid, according to a report by the Iraqi Ministry of Electricity. The head of the ministry, Karim Hasan, has what US officials see as an ambitious, though not totally unrealistic, $25 billion plan to meet current power demand by 2010 and expand the power grid to handle even more demand by 2016.

Though his ministry is considered one of the most effective, poor coordination between ministries and bad governance overall within the Iraq government will stifle progress unless better coordination begins to occur, say Moon and other US officials. Then there's the war.

"It's a pretty aggressive plan in the environment you're working in," says David Pumphrey, a senior fellow for the energy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. "You're basically rebuilding a whole power network where people are getting shot, and that's very hard."

Regional and sectarian politics also play a role in the distribution of power. US officials say it's important to send as much power as possible to Baghdad in the hope that it could stabilize the city, home to some of Iraq's worst violence.

But in Iraq's outlying areas, the common perception is that the networks that distribute power often bypass the small cities and towns in favor of Baghdad, creating resentment. Militias in some of those areas fight to keep the power that a local plant such as Musayyib generates, sometimes using strong-arm tactics to siphon it back into their areas.

Resentment of "Baghdad-centric" power distribution has already led to the sabotage of countless power lines so electricity can't be exported to Baghdad, one American official says.

Because little of the power distribution network is run by computers – it's typically men sitting in substations and circuit shacks – the distribution of power is often determined by whoever has the biggest gun.

"If you have a militia walk into the substation and say, 'We don't want you to flip on that circuit and ship more power to Baghdad,' that happens," Moon says.

When the Musayyib plant is running, Iraqis will have a state-of-the-art facility that will generate power efficiently and far more cleanly than an older plant nearby, whose four smokestacks belch a deep black smoke all day.

It's a point of pride to the Iraqis who guard the facility against would-be terrorists and other criminal acts, says Army Capt. Charles Levine, a commander at a nearby US base.

"This is an Iraqi-owned power plant using Iraqi engineers, and of course they have American mentors, but this is Iraq's chance to stand shoulder to shoulder with its neighbors in terms of power generation," says Captain Levine.

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