Iraq’s electricity grid could collapse any day because of insurgent sabotage, rising demand, fuel shortages and provincial officials who are unplugging local power stations from the national system, electricity officials said on Saturday.
President Bush, meanwhile, was busy on the phone, calling Vice president Adel Abdel-Mahdi and President Jalal Talabani, urging political unity in the country, where the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is under a stiff challenge.
Abdel-Mahdi, a Shiite, and Talabani, a Kurd, provided few details of the conversations in statements released by their offices. But both men have been involved in trying to solve a government crisis after Iraq’s largest bloc of Sunni political parties ordered its ministers to quit the government.
For many Iraqi citizens, however, trying to stay cool or find sufficient drinking water was a more urgent problem. The Baghdad water supply already has been severely affected by power blackouts and cuts that have affected pumping and filtration stations.
And now water mains have gone dry in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, where the whole province south of Baghdad has been without power for three days. Power supplies in Baghdad have been sporadic all summer and now are down to just a few hours a day, if that.
“We no longer need to 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.
Aziz al-Shimari, the Electricity Ministry spokesman in Baghdad, said power generation nationally was only half of demand and that there had been four nationwide blackouts over the past two days.
“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,” al-Shimari said.
He complained that the central government was unable to do anything about that or the fact that some provinces were failing to take themselves off the supply grid once they had consumed their daily ration of electricity.
‘Limited generating capacity’
Najaf province spokesman Ahmed Deibel confirmed to The Associated Press Sunday that the gas turbine generator there was removed from the national grid. He said the plant produced 50 megawatts while the province needed at least 200.
“What we produce is not enough even for us. We disconnected it from the national grid three days ago because the people in Baghdad were getting too much, leaving little electricity for Najaf,” he said.
Which confirmed al-Shimari’s charge that “we have absolutely no control over some areas in the south.”
The conflict over electricity is a perennial problem in Iraq, which ironically sits atop one of the world’s largest crude oil reserves. The system became decrepit under Saddam Hussein whose regime was under a U.N. sanctions regime after the Gulf War and had trouble buying spare parts or the equipment to upgrade the system.
Al-Shimari said the electricity shortages now were the worst since the summer of 2003, shortly after the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam.
“And 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.”
He said that there are 17 high-tension lines running into Baghdad but only two were operational. The rest had been sabotaged.
“When we fix a line, the insurgents attack it the next day,” al-Shimari said.
‘The people are fed up’
In Karbala, provincial spokesman Ghalib al-Daami said a 50 megawatt power station there was shut down for lack of fuel and the whole province had been without water and electricity for past three days.
He said almost half the provincial capital had sewage seeping above ground because pump trucks to clean septic tanks were unable to operate for lack of gasoline. The health threat to citizens was also contaminating crops in the region.
Many people who normally would rely on small home generators can’t afford to buy fuel. Gasoline has shot up to nearly $5 a gallon Karbala residents say, a price that puts the fuel out of range for all but the wealthy.
The cost of living in Karbala is less than half that in Baghdad, but wages are equally low. A taxi driver in Karbala can bring in nearly $9 a day, while the same job in Baghdad, on average, earns a driver about $30 daily.
The lack of electricity is particularly accute at this time of year when average daily temperatures reach between 110 and 120 Fahrenheit.
“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.”
U.S. soldier’s death
Elsewhere, the U.S. military announced the death of a Marine during combat Thursday in Iraq’s western Anbar province. That brings to at least 3,664 the number of U.S. military personnel who have died in Iraq since the war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. The figure includes seven military civilians.
The U.S. force also issued a statement saying its forces killed four suspects and captured 33 others Saturday in raids in northern Iraq and along the Tigris River Valley.
And details emerged Saturday about the killing of five brothers kidnapped earlier in the week by gunmen in the northern city of Kirkuk. The five men were painters and were seized as they were on their way to paint a police station in the Rashad area, about 30 miles southwest of Kirkuk, said Brig. Gen. Sarhat Qadir said.
Police found a small boy—the men’s younger brother—alive near the bodies. The boy, who was unhurt, apparently was brought along to help his brothers, Qadir said.
The boy’s father said his sons were killed after he could not pay a ransom of $100,000.
“If you don’t have money, you must come and take their dead bodies (from the morgue),” Mahmoud Wakaa al-Jibouri said the captors told him by telephone.
He and his family had fled from Mosul only months ago to settle in Kirkuk, believing it was safer.
“I will kill myself. I have no meaning in life after you,” al-Jibouri cried, standing at the gate of a morgue awaiting his sons’ bodies. He kissed each of them before their coffins were closed.
Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, has faced rising ethnic tensions as Arabs and ethnic Turks oppose Kurdish efforts to incorporate the oil-rich city into their nearby autonomous zone.