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Fuelling Baghdad's energy crisis

By Hugh Sykes
BBC News, Baghdad

Baghdad's power supply
Hours can pass without mains electricity in Iraq
I am writing this looking at a smart colour graph that has been sent to the BBC bureau in Baghdad by the US Department of State.

It is part of what they call the Weekly Essential Indicators report.

The graph shows the demand for electricity across the country compared with the supply.

Over the past year, supply has never even got near meeting the demand.

Energy gap

Seventy per cent was the very best, but that was exceptional and coincided with the autumn, when the weather is warm and pleasant here and people use their air conditioners and fans less than they do in the searing heat of the summer. And, they have not yet switched on their heaters for the cold desert nights of winter.

On the graph, the supply line mostly hovers around 55% and dips below 50 several times.

That is for the whole country and supply to Baghdad is pitiful.

Hours and hours go by without mains electricity, then it suddenly will be available for a short time and go dead again.

If they can afford to, Iraqis buy generators and the fuel for them.

Home made power

There are massive machines in back gardens roaring almost incessantly.

Prescient entrepreneurs have bought old diesel engines which they use to generate power which they sell to the rest of the neighbourhood, through tangles of coloured cables stretching anarchically over walls and down streets.

Some pavements in central Baghdad are crowded with small petrol generators, enough to keep the lights and the TV on at home when city power fails.

Statue of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein
Preparation for post-Saddam Iraq was 'lamentable' says a US officer

Those streets are like open-air cash and carry warehouses.

As well as the small generators, the pavements are piled high with fridges, air conditioners, personal computers and printers as well as items which were prohibited or unavailable during the Saddam Hussein years like DVD players, satellite decoders and high-definition plasma TVs.

And that is part of the problem. The national grid is constantly playing catch-up.

The generating capacity has increased since the invasion, but not enough to feed all those power-thirsty electrical goods.

And the power stations are decrepit anyway, after years of neglect and sanctions and sabotage by insurgents.

'Lamentable' planning

Shortly after the famous statue of Saddam Hussein was dragged off its pedestal in Firdaus Square on 9 April five years ago, I hopped into the back of an unarmoured American Humvee - canvas roof flapping, driver smoking a cigar - to visit an electricity sub-station with a kindly reservist American major who is an electrical engineer.

Kindly, but unrealistic. "Hugh," he promised, "we'll get normal power back up and running in Baghdad in 48 hours."

Electricity is one of the absolute fundamentals.

"It is the nerve of modern life," an Iraqi power station director told me.

Long before the end of the Second World War, there was already an 'Office for the Reconstruction of Germany' with a staff of eight

What did the invading and occupying nations expect?

To borrow Donald Rumsfeld's cryptic phrase, it was surely a known unknown that a free Iraq would be flooded with previously forbidden goods?

Certainly, nobody made a proper plan.

The word "anticipate" does not seem to have been in the Washington dictionary.

Several times over the past five years, I have sat with another American, a colonel, late at night in his office at a battalion headquarters and we have set the world to rights. He believes lack of planning for the aftermath of the war was lamentable.

By contrast he told me that in Washington in the early 1940s, long before the end of the World War II, there was already an Office for the Reconstruction of Germany with a staff of eight.

Another of the absolute fundamentals is security.

People cleaning streets after Karada bomb 7/3/08
About 70 people were killed by a roadside bomb this week

Just four days after that Saddam Hussein statue was pulled down, a man in a crowd complained to me that freedom without security was useless.

Nearly five years on, in a central Baghdad cafe this week, another man said exactly the same.

Freedom - yes, we have that but still no security.

There are fewer bombs now and fewer tortured bodies found dumped in the river with bullet holes in the backs of their heads.

But is it over? I doubt it.

'Terrorism magnet'

The invasion five years ago let al-Qaeda into Iraq. They were not here before. "It made this country a land fertile for terrorism," as one Iraqi put it.

Al-Qaeda have been largely driven out of many of their former centres of support but they have been displaced, not defeated.

If America leaves, there will be a massacre
Baghdad resident
While I have been writing this, a roadside bomb and a suicide bomber, quite likely working for al-Qaeda, have killed about 70 people and injured more than 120 across the road from that cafe where the man was complaining about lack of security.

Attacks like that used to be much more common.

And they have been reduced largely thanks to the American surge, with 34,000 extra troops in Baghdad.

But 2,000 of them are now heading home.

That number is due to be reduced. Another man at that cafe, across the road from where those bomb exploded, told me: "If America leaves, there will be a massacre."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 8 March, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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