Heat, power cuts fuel tempers

Electricity shortages are affecting water supply, provincial ties and the national mood.

Published August 5, 2007

BAGHDAD - Iraq's power grid is on the brink of collapse because of insurgent sabotage of infrastructure, rising demand, fuel shortages and provinces that are unplugging local power stations from the national grid, officials said Saturday.

Electricity Ministry spokesman Aziz al-Shimari said power generation nationally is only meeting half the demand, and there had been four nationwide blackouts over the past two days. The shortages across the country are the worst since the summer of 2003, shortly after the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, he said.

Power supplies in Baghdad have been sporadic all summer and now are down to just a few hours a day, if that. The water supply in the capital has also been severely curtailed by power blackouts and cuts that have affected pumping stations.

Karbala province south of Baghdad has been without power for three days, causing water mains to go dry in the provincial capital, the Shiite holy city of Karbala.

"We no longer need television documentaries about the Stone Age. We are actually living in it. We are in constant danger because of the filthy water and rotten food we are having," said Hazim Obeid, who sells clothing at a stall in the Karbala market.

Electricity shortages are a perennial problem in Iraq, even though it sits atop one of the world's largest crude oil reserves. The national power grid became decrepit under Hussein because his regime was under U.N. sanctions after the Gulf War and had trouble buying spare parts or equipment to upgrade.

The power problems are only adding to the misery of Iraqis, already suffering from the effects of more than four years of war and sectarian violence. Outages make life almost unbearable in the summer months, when average daily temperatures reach between 110 and 120 degrees.

One of the biggest problems facing the national grid is the move by provinces to disconnect their power plants from the system, reducing the amount of electricity being generated across the country. Provinces say they have no choice because they are not getting as much electricity in return for what they produce, mainly because the capital requires so much power.

"Many southern provinces such as Basra, Diwaniyah, Nassiriyah, Babil have disconnected their power plants from the national grid. Northern provinces, including Kurdistan, are doing the same," Shimari said.

Najaf provincial spokesman Ahmed Deibel confirmed to the Associated Press that the gas turbine generator there had been removed from the national grid. He said the plant produced 50 megawatts while the province needed at least 200 megawatts.

To add to the problem, Shimari said, there are 17 high-tension lines running into Baghdad but only two were operational. The rest had been sabotaged.

"What makes Baghdad the worst place in the country is that most of the lines leading into the capital have been destroyed. That is compounded by the fact that Baghdad has limited generating capacity," Shimari said.

Fuel shortages are also a major problem. In Karbala, provincial spokesman Ghalib al-Daami said a 50-megawatt power station had been shut down because of a lack of fuel, causing the entire province to be without water and electricity for the past three days.

He said sewage was seeping above ground in nearly half the provincial capital because pump trucks used to clean septic tanks have been unable to operate due to gasoline shortages.

Many people who normally would rely on small home generators for electricity can't afford to buy fuel. Gasoline prices have shot up to nearly $5 a gallon, Karbala residents say, a price that puts the fuel out of range for all but the wealthy.

"We wait for the sunset to enjoy some coolness," said Qassim Hussein, a 31-year-old day laborer in Karbala. "The people are fed up. There is no water, no electricity, there is nothing, but death. I've even had more trouble with my wife these last three days. Everybody is on edge."

Fast Facts:

Developments on Saturday

Courts: Pfc. Jesse Spielman, convicted late Friday of rape and murder in the death of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and the slayings of her family, was sentenced Saturday in Fort Campbell, Ky., to 110 years in prison. Spielman, 23, will be eligible for parole in 10 years.

Military: U.S. and Iraqi forces announced they had killed the mastermind of attacks on Samarra's famed Golden Mosque, which sparked sectarian violence across the country. Haytham Badri was killed Thursday when his car caught fire as he fled a U.S. air assault on his home, Iraqi police said. The U.S. military also killed four suspects and captured 33 others in raids in northern Iraq and along the Tigris River Valley, officials said Saturday.

U.S. death: A Marine was killed during combat Thursday in Iraq's western Anbar province, the military said.

Violence: Twenty-one bodies were found in Baghdad. Attacks only claimed a handful of people across the country.

Diplomacy: Iran and the United States will meet in Baghdad on Monday to discuss Iraq's security problems, Tehran's ambassador to Baghdad said.

Contractors: A Philippine special envoy is traveling to the Middle East to investigate allegations that a Kuwaiti contractor took Filipino workers to Iraq without their knowledge to build the U.S. Embassy, the Department of Foreign Affairs said Saturday. Filipino workers recruited by the First Kuwaiti General Trading & Contracting Co to work in Dubai were taken to Iraq without their consent, Foreign Undersecretary Esteban Conejos said.