Power Shortages Spark Anger in Iraq

Few people in Iraq were happier to see the Americans come and Saddam Hussein go than Iraqi Airways pilot Adnan Amin.

Amin hasn't been able to fly since his country was cut off from the world in 1989. But as he walks the five floors up to his apartment each day, he is thinking not about democracy, but electricity.

The Amin family kitchen is cluttered with plastic bottles filled with water. In one of the two stainless steel sinks sits a portable camping stove — its burner is on high and a battered kettle rumbles as it spits steam.

The temperature outside is 115 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Amins live a perfectly modern life: refrigerator, air conditioner, television. But nothing works, not even the building's water pump. Because, as is usual here in Baghdad these days, the electricity isn't working.

On a good day, the Amins will have power for eight hours, but never all at once. And they never know when. Amin says the electricity supply in Baghdad today is far worse than it was before the war.

"Iraq without electricity — you can't live here," says Amin. "It's very, very hot. No air conditioning. No water. We can't live. So I need electricity more than democracy."

Employed But Idle

Khalid Ayub Majid owns a small metal lathing shop in central Baghdad. It is a scene worthy of Dickens. The grimy shop is open to the street, and the workers sit at their machines wiping the sweat onto their oil-stained T-shirts. Some are fanning themselves, trying to stir the heavy hot air.

The seven men who work in the shop are among the luckiest in Iraq. They have jobs. With Saddam's centralized, state-controlled economy in tatters and so much of government infrastructure bombed and looted, it is estimated that unemployment in this country is 70 percent.

But the men here at the lathe shop are idle. Without power, their lathes cannot run. They wait, just in case the power comes back. While they wait, there is no work. No pay.

Majid says he knows who to blame. "Every sane person," he says, "knows that if America wants to fix the electricity they can do it."

Fallen Towers

Travel more than an hour west of Baghdad, into the desert past Abu Ghraib, and you quickly see the scale of the problem. Two major electric transmission lines pass through here, and together they are the source of 15 percent of Baghdad's power supply. But not today.

More than 30 towers on the north line fell like dominoes when the area was bombed during the war. The mangled towers look like an orderly row of giraffes, each one with its neck bent to the ground. Much of the thick electric cable is gone, stripped by looters.

A few hundred yards away a crew of 20 men is trying to repair the south line. It worked until over a month ago, when someone — perhaps a looter, perhaps a Saddam loyalist determined to undermine U.S. rebuilding efforts here — took a torch to the legs of four towers. They tumbled.

The men working here are Iraqis, employees of the National Electricity Commission. They have a truck with a crane on it, but the rest of their heavy equipment was looted in the chaos that followed the war. They have no spare parts. They struggle to restore one of the fallen towers, cannibalizing its own parts to make it stand.

If this operation works, the tower will be shorter than its neighbors but tall enough to carry cables.

At midday, the sun blazes above the open desert. The metal is so hot that even though the workers wear gloves, they pour water onto it before they touch it. The water sizzles and boils.

Fahd Mtafi, the electrical engineer in charge here, points to where the saboteurs have sliced the tower.

Mtafi says with proper equipment, he could have the four towers up in a few days.

When asked when the line will be running again, he says, "It will take a few weeks. The problem is, after we fix it, somebody will sabotage it again."

His biggest concern, though, is security. Other crews have been attacked and killed. His men have no guns, no protection.

"We need equipment," he pleads, "but we need protection too."

A War in Itself

The U.S. adviser to the Iraq Electricity Commission is Peter Gibson, an Army Corps of Engineers employee. It's his job to work with Iraqis to get the power back on. Faced with a badly maintained power system and constant looting, he has not found his work easy.

"We are fighting a war," says Gibson. "We're trying to bring back electricity — that is a war in itself. To mechanically bring all these things back together, it is a war it's not the same kind of killing war, but it's a war."

It is a war the United States cannot afford to lose if it wants the Iraqi people to support the rebuilding efforts here. The message is clear: There can be no democracy without electricity.