Beginning in April the government announced that the country’s power supply was down, but that it had big plans for the future. First, due to attacks, a lack of fuel, and maintenance problems, the Electricity Ministry said that 480 megawatts had been lost that month. In June, the Ministry of Planning said that it might have to shut down hydroelectric power plants because of the drought. At the same time, the Electricity Ministry said that it was moving ahead with plans to install new generators in Salahaddin, Karbala, Babil, Baghdad, Maysan, Najaf, Basra, and Wasit. In May, the government also began working out the details for developing the country’s natural gas resources, which would fuel many of these new plants. By 2012, the Electricity Ministry hoped to provide 24 hours of power. In the meantime, the authorities claimed that it had 9,000 megawatts in capacity, but that estimated demand was 12,000 megawatts. Iraq’s power supply has risen above pre-war levels, largely due to investments by the United States, but it has never met the nation’s needs. Baghdad was finally attempting to tackle this issue beginning this year, allotting the Electricity Ministry one of the largest amounts of money in the 2010 budget, before it was swept up by public dissatisfaction with the slow pace of progress.
June 19 protests in Basra over lack of electricity
Iraqis took to the streets in mid-June calling for the Electricity Minister to step down, and for the government do something about the lack of power during the scorching summer heat. First, on June 19 an estimated 3,000 people demonstrated in Basra over electricity shortages, leading to a clash with security forces that led to two deaths. Then on June 21, 14 police and four protesters were wounded when demonstrators went to the Dhi Qar provincial council building in Nasiriyah. They were turned away with water canons. That same day there was a follow-up march in Basra, and one in Ramadi in Anbar province on June 22. There were also reports of demonstrations in Baghdad. The marchers got religious backing when one of the leading clerics in the holy city of Najaf, Grand Ayatollah Bashir Hussein al-Najafi issued a statement condemning the lack of electricity. With improved security, Iraqis have increasingly turned towards services as a pressing issue that the government needs to address. Politicians seemed to respond by making power, water, and health care campaign issues in the 2009 and 2010 elections, but little changed. Public anger finally boiled over in this wave of protests.
The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was taken off guard by these demonstrations, but was eventually forced to respond by firing the Electricity Minister. On June 21 Minister Karim Wahid al-Hasan offered his resignation. Maliki however, said that the lack of power was an old problem, and that he would look into the matter, showing little concern for the protests. The premier went as far as to call the people in Basra rioters. He also voiced support for Hasan, saying he was best suited for the job, that his work was complicated by years of attacks upon the infrastructure by insurgents, and that he had not accepted his resignation yet. Maliki went on to state that it would take two years for Iraq to solve its power problems when all of the new generators were installed. The Prime Minister wasn’t able to hold that line for very long as there were more demonstrations and his political opponents, the Sadrists and the Supreme Council of the Iraqi National Alliance and the Iraqi National Movement of Iyad Allawi all came out in support of the marches. They are all hoping to push Maliki out of power. That led to him dropping Hasan on June 23.
To save face, Maliki put Oil Minister Hussain Shahristani temporarily in charge of the Electricity Ministry and made a series of announcements about pumping up the power supply. In Karbala, Maysan, Basra, and Muthanna local officials told the press that they were getting money for new generators and maintenance on their power systems, along with extra fuel to power plants. The central government also said that it was re-directing power from the Green Zone and industries to the general public in Baghdad, and that it would get increased supplies from Iran and Turkey. Whether this news will quell the public is not known yet.
Prime Minister Maliki has never shown much appreciation for criticism, and that was seen in his response to the recent protests. When the demonstrations started, Maliki attempted to discount them. When the protests continued he was forced to get rid of Electricity Minister Hasan, who was an ally, but replaced him with another supporter Oil Minister Shahristani, while making a series of public announcements about the power supply meant to appease the people. That might not work as all those moves could’ve happened before, so they did not appear to be decisive actions that would dramatically change the situation. The fact that Maliki’s opponents came out in support of the marches, did not help the matter either, and gave the Prime Minister reason to question their motivations. The issue now is whether the government will go back to business as usual, or whether Iraqis will continue to take to the streets pressuring the authorities into more urgent action. If they do, that would be an important change in Iraqi politics and society, as officials have rarely been held accountable in the country. More likely, Maliki will attempt to hold fast, and hope the marches will blow over.
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