US in Iraq: What's been left behind
After seven years of war, Iraqis are freer but feel embittered by the loss of life and halting progress in turning on the lights.
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Mr. Abdulaziz once had to replace glass in his office that was shattered by bullets; gunmen often fired into the power units. He even organized a boat to carry staff to safer neighborhoods across the Tigris River when this district in southeast Baghdad became one of the most dangerous during sectarian fighting.Skip to next paragraph
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But these days, providing power to citizens is more frustrating than dangerous – partly because the original US-funded renovation was plagued by challenges. "There were so many problems. We couldn't reach our maximum load," says Abdulaziz, an engineer who had stepped away from working on a power unit for an interview. Beside his desk an Apollo-era LED display blinks with the output of each power unit. "Even now, we are suffering."
By mid-2007, eight of 12 main transmission lines were down, severely reducing electricity supplies to Baghdad, according to one congressional report. A July 2007 review by SIGIR found that power station units 5 and 6 – the two rehabilitated with American money in Doura – were not operational because of insufficient maintenance.
In fact, large portions of the aging units were replaced, but key parts that had been "under pressure and heat for 20 years" were not, says Abdulaziz. "It's like a car: If you change just the pistons, and leave everything else, you can't go 200 km [125 miles] per hour."
When Unit 5 went on-line in 2006, its heater burned out within a month and the boiler began to leak. Unit 6, started in 2008, quickly encountered problems, too. Neither unit has come close to its top capacity of 167 megawatts. The US funded effort was "better than nothing ... but I am not satisfied," says Abdulaziz.
With growing demand for electricity, little time exists for critical maintenance. "There is pressure on [the ministry], and so they put pressure on us.... Our people work 24 hours, day and night, because once a unit stops the telephone rings," says the engineer. Replacing the old, weak parts now would require six months or a year. "How can it be done? If I'm telling them I need 45 days, they give me 10 days. It's impossible," the engineer adds. "We are just pushing this thing to the edge of a precipice."
US reconstruction officials cite significant gains in Iraq, from overall electricity production to water projects, especially now that security costs that once ate up to one-fifth of money spent are lower. But the PRTs and USACE will also be wrapping up much of their hands-on role in Iraq in the coming year, as more US forces withdraw.
In the end, the question looms: Were the tens of billions spent for reconstruction of Iraq worth it?
"Compare it to the Marshall Plan, when Germany and all of Europe was broken," says Roche of USACE, referring to the US initiative to rebuild Europe after World War II. "We probably spent the equivalent of $100 billion. You have to put a foundation in place. Germany and Japan now have their own engineers and are building their own stuff. It will be the same with Iraq, too."