Thursday, August 23, 2007

Baghdad's Electrical Grids Failing

The purpose of the surge has been to provide some "breathing space" for the Iraqi government and the various contending factions in Iraq; in other words, to keep them from warring with each other to the extent necessary to allow the government to incorporate the factions in the political system in some way, and to produce some meaningful action by the government. Of course to do so, you have to convince these factions that they have something to gain from entering the political system (a say in the running of the country and the representation of their interests) and something to lose from failing to do so (their power, influence, and even lives.) Securing the lives and protecting the livelihood of the average Iraqi is important to this approach, as you must show that the government can provide these things and the insurgent and militia groups cannot. And while our troops are enjoying some success in this regard in the areas they are heavily concentrating on (but not others)the story of Baghdad's electrical grid and supply has been one of unremmitting failure, as it has long been a largely indefensible target for the insurgents and militias. The system is close to collapse, and now not only is it subject to constant attack by Sunnis insurgent groups, but it's also being subverted by militias who wish to divert the power to their own areas of influence:

Because of the lack of functioning dispatch centers, Mr. Wahid said, ministry officials have been trying to control the flow of electricity from huge power plants in the south, north and west by calling local officials there and ordering them to physically flip switches.

But the officials refuse to follow those orders when the armed groups threaten their lives, he said, and the often isolated stations are abandoned at night and easily manipulated by whatever group controls the area.

This kind of manipulation can cause the entire system to collapse and bring nationwide blackouts, sometimes seriously damaging the generating plants that the United States has paid millions of dollars to repair.

Such a collapse took place just last week, the State Department reported in a recent assessment, which said the provinces’ failure to share electricity resulted in a “massive loss of power” on Aug. 14 at 5 p.m.

It added that “all Baghdad generation and 60 percent of national generation was temporarily lost.” By midnight, half the lost power had been restored, the report said.

With summer temperatures routinely exceeding 110 degrees, and demand soaring for air-conditioners and refrigerators, those blackouts deeply undermine an Iraqi government whose popular support is already weak.

...the officials said it was clear that in other cases, local militias, gangs and even some provincial military and civilian officials held on to the power simply to help their own areas.

With the manual switching system in place, there is little that the central government can do about it, Mr. Wahid said.

“We are working in this primitive way for controlling and distributing electricity,” he said.

Unfortunately, this is unlikely to get better anytime soon. The power grid is a giant, wide-open target (as our most Iraqi civilians, who are frequently targeted for attacks for this reason) and that cannot be changed overnight. The government is incapable of protecting the switching stations and towers that bring electricty to Baghdad, at least not at this time. American forces, pressed by more vital and urgent missions, are in no position to do so themselves. But every outage convinces yet more Iraqis that they have no reason to invest in the legitimacy of the national government, as the militias or insurgent groups they are loyal to (or controlled by) can provide the power that the government cannot.

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