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Key test in Iraq: Is the power on?

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

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 16, 2007


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.

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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.

"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."