Special Inspector General For Iraq Reconstruction’s “Hard Lessons” Chapter 14 “Rebuilding the Electricity Sector”23/08/2012 23:28
By Joel Wing*
After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the lack of services like electricity became one of the pressing demands of Iraqis. The country’s infrastructure was already in poor repair after the Gulf War and sanctions. The looting that followed the end of the regime, made the situation worse as the power grid was systematically stripped. When the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was created, Paul Bremer made the situation worse by making grandiose promises about power production that undermined the system, and could not be met. That set an important precedent, which the Iraqi government continues to follow to this day. Namely, that there would always be progress in electrical output. The continued failures in this field have been the cause of growing discontent within the public, which was an unintended consequence of the U.S. reconstruction effort.
Baghdad was thrown into darkness as soon as Saddam Hussein was deposed. The power grid went out, taking down water and sewage with it. The electricity network was antiquated, having never fully recovered from the Gulf War. In 1991, the Coalition targeted it, knocking it out. (1) Afterward, it was put back together under the most difficult of conditions due to international sanctions. Iraqis had to turn to all kinds of mixed parts from different countries and companies. That degraded the entire system, which was falling apart by 2003. It was so bad, that if one part went down like a power substation, the entire network would go too. Iraq also suffered from a lack of trained personnel to maintain the system, fuel shortages, and pipelines to deliver it. Overall, Iraq had a capacity of 9,000 megawatts, but that was only achievable if all the country’s plants were running at full output. That wasn’t possible however, due to the problems mentioned above. That set the stage for the difficulties the Americans and Iraqis would face trying to repair a system that was barely operating.
The first task the U.S. faced was to turn on the electricity in Baghdad, and the entire country. The Coalition created Task Force Fajr under General Steven Hawkins. He met with Iraqi engineers, and found that there was a generator at the Karkh water plant just outside of the city, that could be used to return power to Baghdad. Then the Americans set about turning on the electricity for the rest of Iraq, which reached 1,275 megawatts by the end of April. That was nearly a quarter of the pre-war level of 4,400 megawatts. Getting the lights on turned out to be relatively easy. It was sustaining and increasing that output along with repairing and expanding the system that proved truly difficult.
The U.S. then began putting the Iraqi administration back together. That started with the reconstitution of the Electricity Commission, which became the new Electricity Ministry. In May 2003, Dr. Karim Waheed al-Aboudi, an engineer who was a director general in the old commission was named the new minister. American advisers were placed within the ministry as well, as with all the others. Together they started planning for the future.
The first plan was to boost output in the short-term. That was to be done by importing gas turbine generators. The U.S. thought they would be quick and easy to install. It also believed that Iraq’s natural gas industry would be quickly rebuilt to provide fuel for the new turbines. That never happened, and even worse, the CPA scrapped plans to build a fuel delivery system. To add to those troubles, Iraq lacked the personnel to operate the gas plants, which required constant maintenance. Iraq continues to face these problems as it has a large number of gas generators, and still no reliable source of fuel for them nor the staff to operate them at full capacity.
In the long-term, the U.S. was facing a much bigger issue. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) had contracted Bechtel to do most of its reconstruction work in Iraq. As part of that job, it assessed the nation’s power system, estimating that it would cost around $6 billion to repair and restore it. Power plants needed to be rehabilitated, substations had to be replaced, and new generators installed. Iraqis would also have to be trained to operate the new equipment, the Oil and Electricity Ministry would have to learn to cooperate so that there was a steady supply of fuel for the power plants, and the public would have to be informed that this was a long-term task that they would have to struggle through. The U.S. did appropriate billions for the electricity sector, but its ideas did not come out quite as planned. Sometimes a power plant was built, but the necessary power lines, towers, etc. were not constructed showing a lack of strategic thinking. The CPA and later Iraqi governments also focused upon short-term success, never letting people know what a long process rehabilitating the entire national grid would take. The U.S. leadership was setting itself up for failure, because it didn’t heed all of the suggestions made by the experts working in the power field.
Some Iraqis were also undermining the CPA’s rebuilding effort. The U.S. estimated that fewer than 50 electrical towers were knocked out or damaged during the war. By mid-June 2003, over 700 had been looted. People were going after the copper in them, to be sold in Iran and Kuwait. Local communities and cities were also knocking them down so that they could keep the power for themselves. (2) Under Saddam, the power system was operated to benefit Baghdad, which received 24 hours of power, while the rest of the country was starved. Now, cities like Karbala, Hillah, and Nasiriyah were able to keep the locally generated electricity for themselves after they cut down the power lines to the capital. That was eventually solved. Of greater danger was the insurgency. Militants launched a concerted campaign to destroy the power system to undermine the new Iraq. Infrastructure was attacked, workers were killed, and companies were targeted. The U.S. tried to counter the insurgents by retaining the Electrical Power Security Service from the Saddam era, but it proved incapable of doing the job, because it lacked the equipment and training to deter the attacks. The result was that many projects fell behind schedule, costs increased leading to budget overruns, and businesses working on the network were intimidated from completing their work. By the end of June, there were almost daily attacks, and they were taking their toll, far worse than what the looters and criminals were doing. It took years for the security forces to turn the tide on the insurgents and gangs to resolve these issues.
Paul Bremer, the head of the CPA seemed oblivious to what was happening out in the field, and began making grand announcements. First, in the summer of 2003, he said that the Coalition would return Iraq to prewar power levels by October. This statement was made unilaterally without consulting with anyone working in the energy field, so there was no plan on how to achieve that goal. In August, a conference of Iraqi plant managers was held to see how the country could reach 4,400 megawatts, which was what Iraq was producing before the invasion. The decision was made to make quick repairs instead of installing new plants, which was already underway with the gas turbines. By September, this work was done, and by the next month, the grid was producing 4,518 megawatts. Bremer seemed pleased, and the CPA was able to fulfill one of its lofty promises. He didn’t stop there however. In October, he said that Iraq would have 24 hours of power within a year. That would require around 6,000 megawatts. Money was appropriated, and new contracts were signed, but the U.S. ran into the insurgency. The growing violence derailed Bremer’s plans. By the time the CPA ended in June 2004, Iraq was only producing 4,200 megawatts, less than what it achieved in October. Bremer had three negative affects. First, the power grid was not able to maintain the 4,400 megawatts, because of the fuel problems, insurgency, looting, and decrepit equipment. In fact, raising output to 4,518 megawatts, actually led to more breakdowns in the system. Second, Bremer set the precedent that progress with Iraq’s electrical sector would henceforth be measured by the daily average production, ignoring the more important elements like rebuilding and expanding the network itself. Third, Bremer’s promises of constant improvement in the megawatt figures were taken up by his Iraqi successors. Every year, Baghdad states that it is going to solve the country’s chronic power shortages. Most recently, the government has promised and failed to achieve 9,000 megawatts this summer. It also claimed that all the power problems would be solved by 2015. Since neither the U.S. nor the Iraqi authorities have been able to achieve this in the last nine years it’s unlikely that this goal will be met.
The Coalition Provisional Authority set expectations too high for the Iraqi public after the 2003 invasion. Paul Bremer set goals for the electricity network without ever consulting with people working in the field. He told Iraqis that in only a few months the country could reach a level of power supply not seen since before the Gulf War. The U.S. was not able to reach that goal. That led to a deterioration of the standing of the Coalition, since most Iraqis believed that such a rich and power country like the United States should have been able to solve the nation’s service problems. Baghdad has followed that legacy, and it too has made grand promises, while consistently failing to meet the people’s needs. Today, nothing the authorities say about progress in the electrical field is believed, and is a major source of discontent against the government. The poor planning has carried over from the CPA to the Iraqis meaning that the country is as unlikely to solve this pressing problem today as the U.S. was back in 2003.
*With an MA in International Relations, Joel Wing has been researching and writing about Iraq since 2002. His acclaimed blog, Musings on Iraq, is currently listed by the New York Times and the World Politics Review. In addition, Mr. Wing’s work has been cited by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Guardian and the Washington Independent.