Monday, June 21, 2010

Basra Protest Over Lack Of Electricity Reflects Twenty Years of Problems

 Summer is upon Iraq with high temperatures in the 120s. Basra, the country’s second largest city, is only receiving an average of two hours of power a day during this scorching weather. As a result, on June 18, 2010 a reported 3,000 people demonstrated there over the lack of electricity. The Electricity Ministry promised an increase in supply this June, but that has not happened due to maintenance work, one power plant going off line, and a lack of fuel to power generators. The Basra protest was just the latest manifestation of Iraq’s electricity problems that have lasted for twenty years beginning with the Gulf War in 1990.

During the Gulf War the Coalition targeted Iraq’s infrastructure, including its electricity network, hoping that it would undermine the government and lead to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. During the actual conflict, commanding General Norman Schwarzkopf denied that the Coalition was targeting Iraq’s power supply, but the truth later came out shortly after the war ceased. (1) On January 17, 1991 for example, the U.S. dropped metallic filaments onto the power network that short circuited the system, and caused blackouts. (2) The Coalition then targeted 28 power plants, flying 215 sorties against them, along with 9 transformer and switching yards. Within a few days, the entire power grid was knocked out of action. Military planners hoped that would cut off communications and the air defense system, as well as cause long-term hardships on the society, which would put pressure on Saddam. While the Bush administration had ruled out direct involvement in overthrowing the government, (3) it hoped to encourage a coup that would get rid of the dictator. Knocking out the power supply was part of that effort.

The problem was there was no coup. In turn, the United States was forced into a long-term strategy of attrition against Saddam, centered on the United Nations sanctions that were imposed in 1990. In the process, Iraq’s power grid began to degrade after it was severely damaged during the war. Four months after hostilities had ceased, 80% of the electrical system was still off line, and the government announced eight-hour blackouts.  A Harvard report made immediately after the war found that bombing damaged 17 of the country’s 20 generating plants, and 11 were total losses. The Pentagon reported that the country’s capacity was down to 1920 levels. U.S. analysts believed that it would take 1-5 years to repair the infrastructure with U.S. aid. That assistance and the spare parts necessary to repair the power grid were largely cut off for thirteen years due to sanctions. In the 1980s Iraq was producing around 9,000-9,500 megawatts. By 2002 it was only producing 4,075 megawatts

When the U.S. invasion came in 2003, the Coalition again targeted the power network, and the post-war chaos led to more damage. A report by a military war college and the State Department’s Future of Iraq project warned of outages and other problems that could occur after the war, but the U.S. plans contained nothing abut the electricity network. As a result, during the looting that took place immediately after the fall of the regime, power plants, electricity lines, and other parts of the system were stripped and destroyed. (4) As the situation deteriorated in the months following the overthrow of Saddam, cities and towns began knocking down towers as well to keep power for themselves. By July 2003 the electricity supply was down to 3,100 megawatts. Bechtel received a $515 million contract from the United States Agency for International Development in September 2003 to fix the power system, but the lack of security undermined that effort. In October 2003 the U.S. committed $5.7 billion in reconstruction money to the electricity network. By 2010 America had spent $4.9 billion of that money, and supply had been boosted above pre-war levels to 5,635 megawatts. The dilemma, was that demand skyrocketed after 2003 due to the removal of sanctions, cheap imports, an increase in buying power of Iraqis, and cheap prices. Usage spikes during the summer as well as temperatures rise. Discontent has been rising as a result for the last seven years, and finally boiled over in the Basra protest.

The governor and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have both promised investigations into the Basra matter, but nothing is likely to change, at least not in the short-term. The Electricity Ministry has promised improved service every year. In 2010 for example, it plans on installing at least one power plant in every province except for the three Kurdish ones. Even that is unlikely to provide enough power to satisfy the public until the entire system is overhauled. That will cost billions more, and there are no current plans to do so. Until then, the gap between supply and demand is unlikely to be met, and anger may boil over again.


1. Gellman, Barton, “Storm Damage in the Persian Gulf,” Washington Post National Weekly Edition, 7/8-14/91

2. Tyler, Patrick, “Iraq Devastation Worse Than Allies Intended,” San Francisco Chronicle, 6/3/91

3. Seib, Gerald, “How Miscalculations Spawned U.S. Policy Toward Postwar Iraq,” Wall Street Journal, 5/31/91

4. Hanley, Charles, “500 felled towers keep Iraqi power at home,” San Francisco Chronicle, 10/2/03 


Collier, Robert, “Iraqis swelter in 115 heat – and fume at U.S.,” San Francisco Chronicle, 7/3/03

Fineman, Mark, Wright, Robin, and McManus, Doyle, “Preparing for War, Stumbling to Peace,” Los Angeles Times, 7/18/03

Gellman, Barton, “Storm Damage in the Persian Gulf,” Washington Post National Weekly Edition, 7/8-14/91

Hanley, Charles, “500 felled towards keep Iraqi power at home,” San Francisco Chronicle, 10/2/03

Seib, Gerald, “How Miscalculations Spawned U.S. Policy Toward Postwar Iraq,” Wall Street Journal, 5/31/91

Al-Shalchi, Hadeel and Juhi, Bushra, “Anger over power cuts leads to violence in Iraq,” Associated Press, 6/19/10

Special Inspector General For Iraq Reconstruction, “Hard Lessons,” 1/22/09
- “Quarterly Report to the United States Congress,” 4/30/10

Tyler, Patrick, “Iraq Devastation Worse Than Allies Intended,” San Francisco Chronicle, 6/3/91

Wolffe, Richard and Gegax, T. Trent, “The Best-Laid Plans,” Newsweek, 7/21/03

1 comment:

Joel Wing said...

There was a follow up protest today in Basra and a new one in Nasiriyah, Dhi Qar over the lack of power.

This Day In Iraqi History - Jun 16 Iraq protested border treaty with Iran by sending troops into Khuzistan province Led to 88 Iraqi soldiers being killed

  1920 UK govt decided to cancel proposed UK run provisional govt in Iraq for an Arab govt under British influence