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    Middle East
     Jun 26, 2010

Dark days for Iraq as power crisis bites
By Charles McDermid and Khalid Waleed

BAGHDAD - Sameh Mohammad is pretty much your typical Baghdad housewife. She's tough, world-weary and consumed by the daily challenge of keeping her four children fed, clothed and alive in the rough Shaab district of the capital's eastern slums. She eased down on her doorstep amid the searing afternoon heat on June 22, and issued a typical Baghdad complaint:

"How can an oil-rich country like Iraq not provide electricity for its people? Our oil is enough to build cities and countries, how is it that government can't give us more than one or two hours of power each day? It's been like this for years," said Mohammad.

Other frustrated Iraqis are taking this question to the streets. Demonstrations and riots over electricity shortages have erupted across the country in recent days with many using the power cuts

 

as a shocking symbol of a corrupt and inefficient government.

Temperatures soaring above 50 degrees Celsius, recent power and fuel price hikes, a dithering government still unable to cobble together a ruling coalition now more than three months after the national election - these factors along with Iraq's simmering social problems have made for a perfect storm of protest that may have just begun.

Iraq rarely speaks with one voice, but the everyday impact of the electricity crisis has crossed wide sectarian and social divisions. That thousands would risk violence and bombings to gather in large groups speaks volumes about the anger on the street. Local media have reported that several leading Shi'ite clerics have called on followers to protest.

Last week in Basra in the south, two demonstrators were killed when police opened fire on a mob enraged by power cuts that reduced electricity availability to below two hours per day. Seventeen police were wounded in Nasiriyah on June 23 by a rock-throwing mob that was trying to storm a provincial headquarters and had to be beaten back by water cannons.

Protesters in Hilla and Diyala on Thursday besieged government buildings and called for the resignation of caretaker Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Demonstrations in Baghdad's poorer and hardest-hit neighborhoods have become a daily occurrence, prompting Baghdad Operations Command to issue strict riot-suppression measures.

The electricity crisis now poses a grave threat to Maliki's contested bid for a second term and promises that any incoming government will be met with rage. Embattled Minister of Electricity Karim Waheed, who reportedly once threatened those who sabotaged power stations with the death penalty, has resigned.

Waheed was quoted in the media as saying that to meet domestic requirements for power, Iraq should be able to produce at least 14,000 megawatts, but the grid's capacity is about 8,000 megawatts.

Ibrahim al-Sumaidaei, a Baghdad lawyer and newspaper columnist, wrote, "These demonstrations are a spontaneous reaction to the continuous failure and fake promises of more than one government and dozens of corrupt ministers and officials. For years they have been lying to the Iraqi people, telling them the electricity will be fixed this month, or next month. They always say soon, but it never happens."

The timing of the protests is a nightmare for Maliki, whose re-election campaign was built around purportedly improved security and services since he emerged as a surprise prime minister in 2005. His Shi'ite majority State of Law alliance took populist platforms into rural areas and Baghdad's impoverished neighborhoods and ended up second in the March 7 parliamentary vote.

Maliki regained frontrunner status by merging with another Shi'ite bloc, but has drawn subsequent criticism for failing to negotiate a coalition government with Sunnis and Kurds and his demand to return as prime minister has been an obstacle. Although this week he agreed to curb the powers of his post to stay in office, analysts say it could be several more months before a government is formed.

Now he faces a public and a parliament that are increasingly wondering how the country's electricity sector seems to have gotten worse in the past five years. Maliki and his team have called for calm, but patience is running out. Should he gain a nomination for the premiership, he'll be facing a vote by parliamentarians whose constituents may be sitting in the dark.

"The fact that we still have so little electricity after all these years makes people think the government has done nothing for them. Maliki was counting on his security achievements to guarantee him the prime minister position again, but these demonstrations are a message that security alone is not enough. You have to deal with the needs of the people," said Sumaidaei.

Iraq's power problems are nothing new. Under former dictator Saddam Hussein, sanctions and wars held electricity access in most of the country down to four to eight hours per day. During the United States-led invasion of 2003, power plants were prime targets for air strikes. Since then, the US has babysat the rehabilitation of Iraq's electricity sector to the tune of US$4.6 billion, or 40% of Washington's total spending on reconstruction.

Even so, sectarian violence in the invasion's aftermath took a heavy toll on rebuilding efforts. As regional energy analyst Samuel Ciszuk told the Associated Press: "Everything that was thrown at the problem between 2003 and early 2007 was wasted money because whatever was built was blown up."

The government claims most Iraqis have around six hours of electricity per day, but in Baghdad's poorer neighborhoods that time is slashed to one or two hours. On top of the rationing and rolling blackouts, the government doubled electricity fees on June 1 to roughly $100 per month. Demand has spawned a black market for electricity in which private-run generators provide power to the highest bidder. The increase in gas-hungry generators has led to a spike in fuel prices from from 20 Iraqi dinar per liter in 2003 ($0.0054 at 2003 exchange rates), to 450 dinar ($0.38) today.

Businesses and hospitals are demanding help from the government to stay open, and more and more Iraqis are denouncing the last administration and its alleged misuse of time and petrodollars.

"We get electricity for only two hours each day - one in the day and one in the night. And for this the invoice last month was 200,000 Iraqi dinar," said Um Abdullah, 49, a housewife in central Baghdad's Bab al-Moadham district.

"It's the government's big joke on us: We pay a lot of money for no electricity. It would be better to just eliminate the electricity service," she added.

The government claims improvements are in the works, but stalled due to dips in oil prices and the international financial crisis. Officials point to a roughly $3.5 billion annual budget for electricity and recent contracts signed with heavyweight energy firms General Electric and Siemens AG build power plants and boost infrastructure. (Still, even the government admits there is no quick fix.)

Meanwhile, the US is using the current problem as extra leverage to push Iraq's leaders to form the next government before the withdrawal of American combat forces in August. To "get on with it", in the words of US ambassador Christopher Hill.

"We understand the frustrations of Iraqi citizens languishing through a very hot summer with limited supplies of electricity. At the same time, overall electricity production is more than 50% higher than it was prior to 2003. The problem is that demand has doubled, outstripping even increased supply," said US Embassy spokesman Phil Frayne.

Frayne continued: "The dissatisfaction of some citizens with the intermittent supply of electricity points up the need to form a new government quickly so that the government can focus all its attention on providing essential services to the Iraqi people."

The statement could be read as a direct message to Maliki as he enters a period that will decide his political future. With the public unified in frustration, and the world watching the clock as a new government fails to form, Maliki must proceed carefully to avoid having his own political power cut off.

Charles McDermid is an editor for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting in Iraq. Khalid Waleed is a Baghdad-based journalist.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


Maliki takes on Sunni militias
(Jun 7, '10)

Deadly power vacuum drags on in Iraq (May 26, '10)

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