BAGHDAD – Iraqis promised development with the ouster of Saddam Hussein and the arrival of the U.S. are now suffering lack of development as never before. And where it hurts every moment is through the collapse of power supply.
More than seven years into the U.S. occupation, most Iraqis lack electricity, leading to demonstrations in towns and cities across the country.
“The big problems began in 2003 with the occupation of Iraq,” 61-year-old Hashim Mahdi told IPS in Baghdad. “The occupiers destroyed all the institutions and the country’s infrastructure, including power plants. More than seven years later there is no improvement.”
Like other Iraqis, Mahdi agreed there had been infrastructure problems before the U.S. occupation, due to Iraq’s war with Iran, and then the U.S. bombing campaigns throughout the 1990s that targeted power plants. But after those attacks, the former regime was able to get the electricity supply restored.
The problems since 2003 have been far worse.
“Why did the government not reform the power plants until now? I think the U.S. commander in Iraq exploited the crisis to put pressure on Iraqi politicians,” Mahdi said.
Mahdi also blames corrupt local politicians for the problem.
“The electricity ministers appointed under the occupation are inexperienced and incompetent. They allow corrupt officials in the department to steal the funds allocated for importing generators and repairing transmission networks,” he added.
The lack of reconstruction and rehabilitation of Iraq’s water infrastructure and power grid has been devastating to farmers and city dwellers alike.
Ahmed Jihad, 35, owns a generator business in Baghdad. He told IPS, “The problem of electricity has existed since the U.S. occupation of the country began, but I hope to help people have one hour of electricity per day now. With rising fuel costs, though, we are all suffering.”
The average family income in Iraq is 200 to 300 dollars a month and families are paying an average of 80 dollars of that to the government for an electricity supply that hardly ever comes.
The many Iraqis who need fuel for their generators run into another problem.
“It is difficult to bring fuel into our areas because of the checkpoints at the entrances to cities and neighbourhoods. The Iraqi security forces make things hard for us, demanding bribes to allow us through. Besides, the fuel is not clean and of poor quality so it damages the generators.”
Others complain about the price of electricity. “Under Saddam, electricity costs were a pittance,” Um Taha, a 30-year-old mother of four told IPS. “But with the U.S. coming in, none of us can afford their prices.”
Abdul Wahab is a chief technical engineer at an electricity distribution station in north-eastern Baghdad.
“Since the U.S. occupation we have suffered from a lack of spare parts for the station. We do not believe there is any intention or genuine effort to repair or upgrade the outdated equipment,” Wahab told IPS.
“All that the government provides are false promises,” he said.
Ongoing security problems complicate the repair work as well. “Our maintenance teams face access problems because of bombings, road closures, traffic chaos and concrete walls, which caused the closure of many streets in Baghdad and other cities,” he explained.
June 14 was the hottest day ever recorded in Iraq, with the maximum temperature reaching 52 degrees C (125 degrees F) in Basra. And most of the country’s residents had to suffer through it with no airconditioners, no refrigerators and no fans.
Two Iraqis were killed by the police in Basra in June while protesting against the power shortages. The deaths, and ongoing protests over the summer, prompted Iraq’s electricity minister Karim Waheed to resign.
“Because Iraqis are not capable of being patient in their suffering, which would be alleviated by the projects I mentioned that will eliminate the shortages of electricity, and as this matter has been politicised on all sides, I am declaring in front of you, with courage, my resignation,” Waheed said in a televised address Jun. 21.
(*Abdu, our correspondent in Baghdad, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who reports extensively on the region).