Baghdad in the dark as power cuts continue to blight the city

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The Independent Online

"I don't believe sabotage is the main reason for the electricity blackout, I think officials just steal the money meant for new power stations," was the student's verdict on yet another power cut.

Few failures in Iraq 30 months after the fall of Saddam Hussein infuriate Iraqis more than the continuing shortage of electricity.

Baghdad's power now works in maddening shifts - two hours on, four hours off, then two hours on again. The throb of small generators, enough for a television and a few feeble lights, provides a background buzz in every house.

As the Minister of Electricity, Mohsin Shalash, a thick-set mournful-looking man, has the most unpopular job in Iraq. Sitting in his heavily defended office, he toldThe Independent that the supply was getting better until 13 July when saboteurs blew up the pylons bringing power to Baghdad from the north.

"We saw massive destruction, greater than anything we had experienced before," he said. "We lost six power lines which were the backbone of the super-grid." The sabotage was expertly done. Usually explosives were attached to one leg of a pylon or tower so it collapsed when they were detonated. The saboteurs must have consulted an electrical engineer who pointed out how to cause maximum damage.

Lack of electric power dominates life in the capital. It means that fridges and deep-freezes do not work so food cannot be stored. It insures that cooking has to be done by gas or kerosene, which have risen sharply in price.

Machinery is destroyed by variations in the power supply. Every so often I forget to take the stairs in my hotel and get into the lift. It starts encouragingly when I press the button and then comes to a shuddering halt between floors. Soon afterwards sturdy maintenance men raise or lower the lift to the nearest floor so I can squirm out while they hold the door open.

Mr Shalash said the sabotage was just one of the problems he faces. Demand for power in Iraq is about 8,500MW and it is only getting 5,000MW. In the confident days after the fall of Saddam Hussein the Electricity Ministry, influenced by Amercan advisers, ignored contracts agreed under the old regime. New and more expensive contracts for power stations were signed. So far they have produced very little power. "It was a very big mistake," says Mr Shalash.

He skirted delicately around questions about contracts signed over the past two years. Ali Allawi, the Finance Minister, had previously told The Independent that, aside from more than $1bn (£600m) missing at the Defence Ministry, some $600m to $800m had disappeared in the second half of 2004 and early 2005 from other government ministries. He said the biggest losses were at the electricity and transport ministries.

Mr Shalash said that, unlike in arms procurement, where money was spent and few weapons received, newly purchased electrical equipment did turn up. The questions being asked revolved around the exaggerated cost of some contracts. "Our guys picked six or seven major ones where there are major errors, something improper," he said.

Mr Shalash confirmed that on several occasions an in-house ministerial committee overseeing contracts refused to sign the papers put in front of them. As a result, new and more compliant committee members were appointed who were willing to sign. He said that ministry officials had been particularly dubious about a contract for Musayib power station that increased in cost from $280m to $350m.

Problems in Iraq never come alone. There are in fact power stations standing idle but they need diesel fuel of which there is a shortage in Iraq. It has to be purchased at high prices from abroad. "We need seven million litres of diesel but we only get 3.5 -4 million litres," said Mr Shalash.

A further difficulty is that Iraqi consumers do not pay for electricity, and are therefore lavish in using it when it is available. They are invariably dismissive of official excuses, refusing to believe that the US could not restore electricity to its pre-war levels.

They repeatedly point out that after the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein took only six months to patch up the power stations and the national grid, though both had been severely damaged by missiles and bombs.