There's a running joke in Baghdad this summer - whenever the electricity minister promises to generate more power, it's time to buy more diesel for your private generator.
Despite nearly two years of relative calm in Iraq, a combination of factors including political posturing, sandstorms, terrorist attacks and increased demand mean the government has still not been able to resolve a perennial Iraqi complaint - not enough electricity.
Iraqis desperate for air conditioning in summer temperatures regularly topping 120 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius) complain of inconsistent power supply, with some families receiving close to 24 hours worth, and others only two to three hours daily.
Some factories have had to cut back production because of power problems, and officials worry that foreign investors will hesitate to put their money into new projects because of electricity worries.
Ali Mohsin, a civil servant who lives with 7 people in his Baghdad home, says his nephews and nieces suffer from skin rashes because of the heat. His house receives only two hours of government-supplied electricity a day, and his generator provides another six.
"Where can we sleep?" he said. "The home is too hot to stay inside, the roof is unsafe and the sandstorms have been bad this year. We are simply roasting."
The reasons behind the shortage are many, said Electricity Minister Karim Waheed during a news conference Monday. The country does not have enough fuel to run some of its power stations, and falling oil prices, a key source of income for Iraq, mean budgets are tight. Water shortages in the Euphrates and Tigris rivers have affected hydropower as well.
Like the rest of Iraqi society, electricity has also been affected by insurgents, many of whom targeted power infrastructure. More than 1,000 of the ministry's staff have been either killed or wounded since the 2003 invasion, the minister said.
Severe sandstorms this summer mean maintenance crews have been
forced to clean power station equipment on an almost daily basis because of dust and sand build-up, as opposed to annually, said ministry spokesman Aziz Sultan.
Relief may be in sight. Last December, Iraqi officials signed preliminary deals with General Electric Co. and Siemens AG worth over $3 billion to boost the country's electricity generation. The deals were designed to upgrade the country's power grid, which has been ravaged by years of war, sanctions and neglect. GE and Siemens are to provide gas turbines as well as other products such as technical advisory services, training, performance testing and spare parts for the construction of new power plants.
After repeated delays that Sultan blamed on political squabbling between ministries and investors, the deals appear to be going forward. The Finance Minister has ordered $2.4 billion to be transferred to the Electricity Ministry to begin payments to GE and Siemens.
The work is slated to begin at the end of the year, Wahid said in an appearance on Al-Arabiya TV after the payments were made.
The power outages aren't just a nuisance. Many Iraqis also worry that the outages will drive away foreign investment - something Iraq desperately needs. Iraqi officials at the Ministry of Industry said some companies were forced to shut down because of power outages at the end of July, and even those with generators couldn't perform at maximum capacity. Such problems may make investors reluctant to do business in Iraq, officials said.
In Najaf, the power outages have delivered a severe blow to industrial and factory-driven businesses, said Thaher al-Mahdry, a member of the Najaf Chamber of Commerce.
"We haven't seen any new projects start up for fear of losing money because of the poor electricity situation," said al-Thaher. "It keeps investors away because it just costs too much."
Improving the grid was a major focus of U.S. Army engineers immediately after the war, but the effort ran into problems. Officials found barely operating power plants, lacking spare parts and suffering from years of neglect during wars and U.N. trade sanctions.
During the 1991 Gulf War, U.S. warplanes targeted the power grid. It was further damaged in the 2003 invasion, the looting that followed and finally by insurgent attacks designed to cripple the country.
Another reason that much of Iraq is still in the dark - or more importantly for many Iraqis, without air conditioning - is that demand for power is also rising. According to U.S. officials, power generation increased by 40 percent since last summer, but demand has also spiked, particularly this summer during the worst drought the country has ever seen.
"There are more houses online and more businesses online, they are drawing more power," a U.S. official told The Associated Press. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media.
One area of the country is not sweltering. The self-ruled Kurdish government has been able to provide an average of more than 18 hours of electricity daily, said Dalshad Mohammad, the Kurdish electricity minister. He said the new electrical station in the Kurdish city of Irbil, and the use of hydropower and locally manufactured natural gas has ensured a steady fuel supply to power stations.
The Kurdish government has moved faster than the government in Baghdad because it is more politically unified and, given the far lower level of violence in the region, it has been freer to focus on infrastructure. The Kurdish north was also already much further along in developing gas than the oil-rich south.
In Baghdad, Mohsin said Iraqis are becoming impatient with the
government's inability to take care of the shortages.
"We elected this government, we cheered for it on the streets," said Mohsin. "Now we want it to deliver its promises."
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