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A bigger threat to Iraq than Al Qaeda? Power cuts.

The US and Iraq have spent billions on concrete blast walls and other measures to protect against insurgent groups, including Al Qaeda. But power cuts and rolling blackouts are feeding public discontent over a lack of electricity.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent / June 22, 2010

Children use a plastic tub to cool themselves during a power outage in Baghdad, Iraq on Tuesday. Protests over electricity shortages in Iraq's sweltering south continued Tuesday, prompting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to promise to make power needs a top government priority, a day after Iraq's electricity minister resigned.

Hadi Mizban/AP



Iraq’s electricity minister offered to resign Monday night over power cuts that have sparked fatal protests. But the move has failed to quell anger over what Iraqis widely describe as a war being waged against them by uncaring and corrupt politicians.

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On a street of small blacksmith shops in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood, shop owner Mohammad Mahmoud al-Tikmachi says he’s had to spend more than $10,000 on a generator to keep his business going. The fuel costs for the generator have more than doubled the prices of iron window frames and gates, making them unaffordable for many homeowners.

“That’s why business has slowed down,” says Mr. Tikmachi. “Everything in our life depends on electricity. This is warfare against the citizens.”

“Maybe it will be better in 300 years,” jokes a customer in Tikmachi’s shop as workers weld together iron bars in sweltering heat after sleepless nights in homes with no electricity.

The Iraqi government has promised Baghdad residents two hours of electricity out of every six, but even that modest target has fallen far short. The inability of the government to provide reliable electricity seven years after the fall of Saddam is seen as more potentially destabilizing than the continued car bombs and suicide attacks.

While the US and Iraq have invested heavily in security, the lack of electricity has denied Iraqis not only basic comforts but also the ability to rebuild their country, their economy, and their own lives. With the onset of summer, when temperatures can reach 150 degrees F., public discontent has erupted across the country.

'Where is the electricity, oh Minister?'

At a Baghdad traffic circle – where a statue of Kahramanah from "1001 Nights" pours boiling oil on some of the 40 thieves – a banner from the "citizens of Karrada" strung along the wall asks: “Where is the electricity, oh Minister?”

Electricity Minister Karim Wahid, considered close to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, offered his resignation Monday night after violent protests in the southern cities of Basra and Nasiriyah killed one Iraqi and injured dozens of citizens and police. But he criticized the ‘impatience’ of the Iraqi people and excessive expectations.

The protests have spread throughout the country. In oil-rich Kirkuk, a key city for electricity generation, the provincial government has threatened to cut off the rest of the country from the electricity grid if the central government doesn’t give it more of a share.

In Mosul, Jamal Saeed, an officer in the former Iraqi Army, called for a general strike.

“We should take to the streets and pressure the officials into taking action – if that fails I unhesitatingly call on all the residents of the city to go on strike until the city is paralyzed,” said Saeed.

Tuesday, Mr. Maliki told reporters he had not yet accepted Wahid’s resignation and warned Iraqis it would take at least another two years to bring giant US and German electricity projects on stream.

US and Iraqi officials say much of the electricity problems are a legacy of Saddam Hussein, a decade of international trade sanctions, and increased demand. The US Embassy issued a statement Tuesday saying electricity production was actually 50 percent higher than it was before 2003. It called on Iraq to quickly form a new government to deal with essential services.

Iraqis blame corruption