A bigger threat to Iraq than Al Qaeda? Power cuts.
The US and Iraq have spent billions on concrete blast walls and other measures to protect against insurgent groups, including Al Qaeda. But power cuts and rolling blackouts are feeding public discontent over a lack of electricity.
Iraq’s electricity minister offered to resign Monday night over power cuts that have sparked fatal protests. But the move has failed to quell anger over what Iraqis widely describe as a war being waged against them by uncaring and corrupt politicians.
On a street of small blacksmith shops in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood, shop owner Mohammad Mahmoud al-Tikmachi says he’s had to spend more than $10,000 on a generator to keep his business going. The fuel costs for the generator have more than doubled the prices of iron window frames and gates, making them unaffordable for many homeowners.
“That’s why business has slowed down,” says Mr. Tikmachi. “Everything in our life depends on electricity. This is warfare against the citizens.”
“Maybe it will be better in 300 years,” jokes a customer in Tikmachi’s shop as workers weld together iron bars in sweltering heat after sleepless nights in homes with no electricity.
The Iraqi government has promised Baghdad residents two hours of electricity out of every six, but even that modest target has fallen far short. The inability of the government to provide reliable electricity seven years after the fall of Saddam is seen as more potentially destabilizing than the continued car bombs and suicide attacks.
While the US and Iraq have invested heavily in security, the lack of electricity has denied Iraqis not only basic comforts but also the ability to rebuild their country, their economy, and their own lives. With the onset of summer, when temperatures can reach 150 degrees F., public discontent has erupted across the country.
'Where is the electricity, oh Minister?'
At a Baghdad traffic circle – where a statue of Kahramanah from "1001 Nights" pours boiling oil on some of the 40 thieves – a banner from the "citizens of Karrada" strung along the wall asks: “Where is the electricity, oh Minister?”
Electricity Minister Karim Wahid, considered close to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, offered his resignation Monday night after violent protests in the southern cities of Basra and Nasiriyah killed one Iraqi and injured dozens of citizens and police. But he criticized the ‘impatience’ of the Iraqi people and excessive expectations.
The protests have spread throughout the country. In oil-rich Kirkuk, a key city for electricity generation, the provincial government has threatened to cut off the rest of the country from the electricity grid if the central government doesn’t give it more of a share.
“We should take to the streets and pressure the officials into taking action – if that fails I unhesitatingly call on all the residents of the city to go on strike until the city is paralyzed,” said Saeed.
Tuesday, Mr. Maliki told reporters he had not yet accepted Wahid’s resignation and warned Iraqis it would take at least another two years to bring giant US and German electricity projects on stream.
US and Iraqi officials say much of the electricity problems are a legacy of Saddam Hussein, a decade of international trade sanctions, and increased demand. The US Embassy issued a statement Tuesday saying electricity production was actually 50 percent higher than it was before 2003. It called on Iraq to quickly form a new government to deal with essential services.
Iraqis blame corruption
Across the board and across class lines, Iraqis blame corruption for a lot of the power shortages.
At a concert in the garden of parliamentarian Safia Suhail on Monday night, Iraqi dignitaries and foreign diplomats listened to members of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra and traditional musicians in a symbol of the rebirth of Iraqi culture.
Between performances, news of the electricity minister’s resignation swept through the Iraqi crowd like wildfire.
“Is it true? Has he really resigned?” guests asked. “That’s the best news,” said one. “They should all be in jail,” said another.
“I’m very happy – he should have done this a long time,” said university professor Raghed al-Suhail. “We’ve been dying for seven years – they have to open the files of corruption at the Ministry of Electricity.”
Tikmachi waited months to be paid by Ministry of Justice
At the blacksmith’s shop in Karrada, Tikmachi says between the corruption, inefficiency, and electricity cuts it’s been almost impossible to do business.
He says he waited eight months to be paid for ironwork at a Ministry of Justice building after the bank kept telling him they had no cash in the account. He says he finally received a check for 4.25 million Iraqi dinars – about $3,800 – after a ministry finance official demanded almost $900 in payment for issuing it. When he raised it with the supervisor, she said there was nothing she could do because she was afraid.
“If there was constant electricity there would be stability,” Tikmachi says. “How many billions of dollars have been spent to provide concrete [blast walls]?”
"Our politicians are protecting themselves behind concrete from people who don’t have work.”
Few Iraqi products
Across the street, Khalid Mustafa relies on a small generator to keep the milk and soft drinks cold in his corner store.
“The electricity is here for an hour or 15 minutes or 10 minutes and then it goes out again,” says Mr. Mustafa. He buys electricity and fuel for his small generator for about $100 a month but the government recently has prohibited people from buying jerry cans of fuel at gas stations – a measure he describes as "open warfare" against the citizens.
The tidy shelves of Mustafa’s shop are stocked with everything from hair color and fake snow to toy guns and princess dolls – all of them are imported from Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and China. The only locally made products he sells are plain biscuits in cellophane wrappers.
“Up until the fall of Saddam we made all sorts of things – detergents, dairy products – but now there’s no electricity to run the factories,” he says.
'Our votes had no value'
The crisis in services has led to a lack of faith in the political process that just three months ago promised the allure of a representative government. Although the new parliament met in a symbolic opening session this month, political leaders have made no serious headway into forming a new government.
“I voted but I’ve regretted it since,” says Tikmachi. “Our votes had no value.”
Sahar Issa contributed to this report.