Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Power shift at Iraq power plant a key test

U.S. troops turn over a base protecting the biggest power plant in Iraq. The plant is running at less than full capacity, and higher summer electrical needs lie ahead. Then there's the danger of attack By Tina Susman March 11, 2009 Reporting from Musayyib, Iraq — Flames flickered from a metal trash can as a U.S. soldier shoved maps and other papers into the fire. A front loader carried an outhouse down a dirt lane marked N. Hellcat Road. It was handoff day at Iskan, a U.S. military base on the grounds of Iraq's largest power plant. Its troubled past, imperfect present and foggy future mirror the country as a whole as U.S. forces pull out of bases and turn them over to the Iraqis, even as recent suicide bombings have renewed fears of instability. Bombed out of commission by American warplanes in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War, targeted by insurgents after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 and occupied by American forces for nearly six years, the thermal plant is light-years ahead of what it was at the start of the current conflict, but still operating at less than half capacity. Inside a control room, the original equipment with its buttons, levers and blinking lights looks like an artifact from the set of "Star Trek"; new equipment is coming, but it takes time. In the lobby, a cobweb-cloaked model of the plant as it looked after the 1991 bombing serves as a reminder of the attack, as if that were necessary -- employees bring it up in every conversation with a foreign visitor. But when Iraqis here, and in the rest of the country, speak of the superpower that both pummeled and protected them, they sound like college graduates glad to be free of classrooms but anxious about what lies ahead. Most are happy to see the occupation's end in sight, even as they acknowledge that the situation is far from fixed and might never be as good as they hoped. The plant, for example, produces about 600 megawatts -- enough to power about 150,000 homes in this area of lush fields, sandy plains and market towns bearing the scars of battles past. That's good enough for now because "the weather is nice," the plant manager, Abbas Ubad, said as the sun sparkled off the Euphrates River out his office window. "No one is using their heaters or air conditioners." Ubad's unspoken warning: Come May, when temperatures begin their annual climb into triple digits, demand will soar and so will public dissatisfaction with services, government and life since the current conflict began. If anything has angered Iraqis more than the insecurity that followed the U.S.-led invasion, it is the shortage of electricity. Both have vastly improved. Even so, 258 Iraqis, including 211 civilians, died in war-related violence last month. The country produces about 6,000 megawatts of power, compared with 4,100 five years ago, but 6,000 was the goal set for June 2004 by then-U.S. viceroy L. Paul Bremer III. Now, the country needs twice that, Ubad said. That, he concedes, is not possible until new power plants are built and behemoths such as this one, built in 1985 and held together with components from South Korea, Russia and Germany, are back to full speed. As he spoke, smoke puffed from three of the plant's four giant chimneys. The fourth was idle, its associated unit down for maintenance. Even if the unit comes back online as planned within a couple of months, the plant still won't produce to capacity because of old parts that present maintenance difficulties, the plant's planning manager, Mohammed Ali, said as he walked through a hangar-like room where pigeons perched on the sills of broken windows and signs warned that objects could fall from above. Nevertheless, the ceremony in a courtyard outside was seen as a huge step forward. A vase of flowers sat on the small table where a U.S. official and a representative of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki conducted the official transfer of responsibility Feb. 22. One of the Iraqi security officers attending the ceremony was Capt. Qassim Hussein Anad of the 150-member Ministry of Energy security force, which officially took over plant protection. He speaks of Iraqi forces' eagerness to take charge but warns that nothing is certain in a region once so violent that it was dubbed "the triangle of death." Asked what concerned him most, Anad nodded to the north, toward a region known as the lakes area. "It's an open area," he said, describing it as 60% secured. Army Lt. Col. Steven Miska, commander of the battalion in charge of the area, acknowledged that the lakes region has remnants of the Al Qaeda in Iraq militant group and that other insurgent activity occurs there. He said that if there were an attack, Iraq's army, police and the ministry security forces would be on the front line. There is a small U.S. outpost across the river; the closest U.S. brigade is about 20 miles away. A few days earlier, Miska said, Iraqi security forces had demonstrated their readiness by responding rapidly to a nearby suicide bombing that killed 35 people. "Politically, it's a move in the right direction," Miska said of handing over authority. "It demonstrates their sovereignty if they are in control of security, of power, in their region." Sovereignty or not, bombings such as the one a week earlier worry many Iraqis, who wonder about the reliability of their security forces even as they long for an end to the foreign occupation with its checkpoints, incessant frisks, searches of handbags and briefcases, and slow-moving military convoys whose gunners point menacingly at close-following cars. It's a concern the Americans who have lived here acknowledged as they watched the last of their mini-city, with its latrines, trailers and heavy equipment, being moved out of the base, an exercise that had begun weeks before and required 600 flatbed truckloads. "They're all very anxious and nervous. Once Iraqis realize we've left the FOB [forward operating base], they're worried there could be an attack," said Army Capt. Bradley Kinser, who says 900 U.S. soldiers and 500 support personnel occupied the base at one time. But Kinser said an attack was "extremely unlikely" because of improvements in the Iraqi security forces, and because of local support for the plant. Everyone wants electricity, even "bad guys," the Americans and Iraqis here agree. "We're developing, we're evolving," Anad, smartly clad in his blue uniform and black beret, said as he ticked off various security measures designed to keep the plant, at least, safe. More important than men in uniform carrying guns, Anad said, was mind-set. "Our hearts are together," he said of Iraqis. "People are tired of fighting. They saw five years of violence and got nothing from it." U.S. and Iraqi officials also point to the peaceful Jan. 31 provincial elections as powerful evidence that Iraq has turned a corner. Losing parties accepted defeat, and Iraqis organized and protected polling on their own, they say. With that milestone behind them, U.S. officials are looking toward other markers, such as national elections this year, as they figure out how to reach President Obama's August 2010 end-of-combat goal outlined last month. By then, only 35,000 to 50,000 troops would remain, compared with the 142,000 here now. Remaining troops would be limited to training Iraqi security forces and other noncombat duties. "This is Iraq, and a lot can happen by then," said Maj. Gen. David Perkins, the chief U.S. military spokesman. "There will be enough very difficult events that will put the Iraqi security forces, the institutions of Iraq, to a test to see how they come out. How they come out will determine the way forward." The way to stanch discontent, everyone here agrees, is to provide essential services. "That means electricity. Nothing else matters except electricity," said a Western advisor to Maliki's government, saying that progress "could all go down the drain" if Iraqis face another stifling summer without sufficient power.

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