The summer months have brought about Iraq’s seasonal hot weather. That has also led to a new wave of protests over power shortages for the third time in four years. The demonstrations started in Nasiriyah in Dhi Qar in early June 2013, and have since spread to Basra, Muthanna, Maysan, and Wasit governorates. They have charged the government with incompetence and corruption, and asked for Deputy Premier Shahristani who is in charge of energy policy and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step down. The growing protests have applied enough pressure on Baghdad that Maliki, Shahristani, the Electricity Ministry, and parliament are all exchanging accusations over who is responsible for this fiasco. The problem is that the Electricity Ministry is incapable of meeting demand, likely leading to growing anger and demonstrations throughout the south.
Demonstration in Basra July 2013 over the lack of electricity (Dananer)
Protests over the lack of electricity are taking place in five of Iraq’s eighteen governorates. The first were in Nasiriyah at the beginning of June. By July, they had spread to Basra, Maysan, Muthanna, and Wasit. People in Basra have called for the prime minister to step down, holding him responsible for the failure to provide services and security. These demonstrations have gained the support of the governors of Basra and Dhi Qar showing that the anger over this issue is not just in the street, but in the halls of the local governments as well. All of these provinces saw similar activities in 2010 and 2011. Many Iraqis have simply lost faith in Baghdad providing for their needs. Every year since 2003, the Americans and then the Iraqi authorities have claimed that the country would overcome its chronic power outages in just a few months to a year. While production has steadily increased, so has demand as Iraqis, freed from sanctions, have bought more and more consumer goods like refrigerators, televisions, and air conditioners. That’s what has led to these constant protests over the last several years, as the Electricity Ministry has never produced enough power to catch up with the escalating levels of usage.
Parliament has tried, but failed to hold the government accountable for the repeated failure to solve the electricity problems. The legislature recently called on Deputy Premier Hussein Shahristani and Electricity Minister Abdul Karim Aftan to appear before it, but the former refused. Aftan testified to the oil and energy committee, and tried to deflect blame to the Finance Ministry for not allocating funds for projects, and the Oil Ministry for not providing enough fuel. At the same time, the minister admitted that he lacked experienced and trained staff to man all the new power plants being build. Parliament has brought up other issues as well such as why Iraq bought gas driven turbines when it doesn’t have enough natural gas to fuel them, and continues to purchase them, as well as why 18% of the country is not connected to the national grid. These problems and others have been known for years, and brought up again and again by lawmakers, but to no affect. The parliament is given wide ranging oversight powers under the 2005 constitution, but either chooses not to exercise them or is ignored by the government. Electricity is a perfect example, as lawmakers’ constant criticism has brought no changes.
Government officials have responded to the renewed protests by blaming each other for the country’s predicament. Prime Minister Maliki recently said that the Electricity Ministry was responsible for the power failures, claiming that it had failed by signing fraudulent contracts with companies. He went on to claim that Deputy Premier Shahristani gave him erroneous information about the power sector. That set off rumors that Shahristani was going to resign, but that was quickly denied. The deputy’s office responded that he was only responsible for formulating strategy and coordination when it came to the energy file, and went on to point to the Electricity Ministry as the main culprit. This was a rare break within Maliki’s coalition, and showed what pressure he must be under. Shahristani is the head of the Independents bloc one of the most important elements within the prime minister’s State of Law list. Maliki has been willing to fire officials in the past to make them scapegoats for government failures, but going after the head of a party, especially one so crucial to the premier’s own list is quite different. If the demonstrations were the only thing going on in the country, the prime minister would not be publicly breaking with Shahristani. Instead, Sunni protests continue in western, northern and eastern parts of the country, the insurgency is taking off, and most importantly, the premier is facing re-election next year. That’s leading to some desperation with the recriminations.
The Electricity Ministry has tried to act like everything is proceeding according to plan, but its own figures don’t add up. Minister Aftan announces almost every week that the power shortages will be over by the end of the year. The Ministry claims that it is producing 10,600 megawatts, and constantly talks about new power stations coming on line soon. That figure is actually probably the capacity that the country has reached, not its actual output. For example, it always notes there is a lack of fuel that is cutting into production. More importantly, the Ministry wants to achieve 11,000 megawatts by the end of 2013, while stating that demand is at 14,000 megawatts. It is therefore impossible for the energy problem to be solved, as Minister Aftan likes to claim. An adviser to Maliki recently pointed this factor out, which is another reason why the premier and his deputy are pointing fingers at the Electricity Ministry.
The increasing temperatures in the country are symbolic of the growing anger felt amongst many common people over the lack of power supplies in Iraq. The fact that this issue has dragged on for so long despite the constant promises of officials has boiled over into the streets in the last several years, and 2013 is no different. The infighting amongst officials is not likely to solve anything other than some symbolic firings that try to appease the public. That has not worked in the past, and won’t this year as the Electricity Ministry knows that it can’t meet demand for power anytime soon. The growing protests also come at a dire time for the prime minister who is facing a number of other crises at the same time. The pressure upon him will only increase in the coming months, as the protests are likely to spread to other provinces. It is the lack of results that is bringing out the frustration of Iraqis, and could cost Maliki in next year’s election.
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Abedzair, Kareem, “Anti-government protests reported in southern provinces,” Azzaman, 7/27/13
AIN, “SLC MP holds government responsibly for not settling electricity crisis in Basra,” 7/22/13
- “Urgent…Parliament to re-summon Shahristani, Aftan security leaders,” 7/27/13
Alsumaria, “Al Maliki points out to failure of Iraq Electricity,” 7/25/13
Buratha News, “And tribal elders Basra threatened large demonstrations in protest against the deteriorating of electricity and purses confirms: I own files of corruption in the Ministry’s projects,” 7/14/13
- “Dhi Qar pretend for the eighth day in a row and the demonstrators contend: the sacking of police chief victory for us and corrupt,” 7/26/13
Dananer, “Minister of Electricity and renewed his pledge to end the crisis despite Maliki’s recognition of his failure Baghdad,” 7/24/13
Ghazi, Ali, “State law: demonstrations against electricity a conspiracy!!” Ur News, 7/24/13
Independent Press Agency, “The governor of Dhi Qar announce his support for the demonstrators’ demands for basic services such as electricity,” 7/17/13
Iraq Times, “Albzona: Basra demonstrators demanding the dismissal of al-Shahristani,” 7/17/13
- “Basra residents are demanding in the biggest demonstration so far al-Maliki to step down immediately,” 7/25/13
- “Demonstrations in Basra against the miserable reality of Services,” 7/12/13
- “Samawah after Basra, Dhi Qar demanding services in a night demonstrations,” 7/25/13
Al-Mada, “Confirmed that 18% of the country’s areas not reached by electricity: Parliamentary Integrity calls for replacing al-Shahristani, Aftan,” 7/28/13
- “Dhi Qar is deprived of two thousand MW due to the delay monument new power stations .. And a lack of transformers 50%,” 7/22/13
- “Electricity and fuel will not arrive before the end of 2014 .. Shahristani responding to Maliki accused him of failing,” 7/27/13
- “Electricity: Our production reached more than ten thousand megawatts and processing of Baghdad arrived to “12 hours,”” Al-Mada, 7/15/13
- “Iraqi electricity is again “population coverage requirement in Baghdad and other provinces in full” before the end of the year,” 7/26/13
- “Minister of Electricity: lack of experience deprives us of running the new stations do not comment on the loss of 61% of the current,” 7/28/13
New Sabah, “Dhi Qar respond to the demonstrators and raise 80% of the iron gates,” 7/26/13
- “Minister of Electricity: $ to trickle for the purchase of fuel,” 7/28/13
Radio Nawa, “Governor of Maysan province threatens to sit in front of the Ministry of Electricity in the absence of taking his proposals for improving the situation of electricity,” 7/14/13
Sabah, Mohammad, “Parliamentary Integrity: Maliki prevented questioning of the Minister of electricity a month ago and huge stations are left out in the cold,” Al-Mada, 7/17/13
Shafaq News, “Breaking News… Shahristani’s office talks about the latter’s resignation,” 7/24/13
- “Large demonstrations in three cities in Basra,” 7/13/13