As Arabs revolt, Iraqis demand electricity
Baghdad - As other Arab nations call for democracy in the wake of uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, Iraqis are waging their own power campaign, demanding more electricity.
While pro-democracy protests have spread to other Arab countries to oust autocratic rulers, in Iraq where Saddam Hussein's dictatorship was overthrown by the 2003 US-led invasion, protesters have different ambitions.
Peaceful protests decrying a lack of basic services such as electricity and water have grown across Iraq over the past two weeks, with demonstrators venting anger at Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government.
Borrowing from the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia where the internet charged uprisings that toppled unpopular rulers in both countries, some of the protests across Iraq also have been mobilised by Facebook.
Groups called "No Silence", "Baghdad Is Not Kandahar" and "Blue Revolution" organised a Valentine's Day protest in Baghdad on Monday to denounce corruption and "greed" among Iraqi officials, calling on them to provide jobs and improve electricity, water and sewage facilities.
Now, Facebook groups are abuzz with calls for a February 25 protest in Baghdad that is being billed as a "Revolution of Iraqi Anger", urging citizens to converge in large numbers to protest against a number of woes, with electricity at the top of the list.
No life without electricity
"Our goal is not to change the government. We only want reforms," said Karnas Ali, one of the organisers of the Valentine's Day protest.
Inam Wahid, one of hundreds of protesters at another Baghdad rally, said his home had been without electricity for five days, while a banner at a protest on Tuesday in the western city of Fallujah read, "There is no life without electricity".
Angry Iraqis staged violent demonstrations last summer in several southern cities over power rationing as temperatures reached 54° and air conditioners sat idle.
A nationwide survey released this month by Washington's International Republican Institute showed Iraqis polled last summer believed that basic services like electricity were the country's biggest single problem, even ahead of the persistent and deadly insecurity.
In August 2003 Paul Bremer, the top American official in Iraq who led the post-invasion Coalition Provisional Authority, promised that, "About one year from now, for the first time in history, every Iraqi in every city, town and village will have as much electricity as he or she can use and will have it 24 hours a day, every single day."
He soon learned there was no quick fix: Nearly eight years later, Iraqis get no more than eight hours of electricity per day.
$80bn in investment
Iraq's entire electricity network - from generation plants to hub stations and transmission lines - took a beating under the 1980-88 war with Iran, the 1991 Gulf War, more than a decade of UN sanctions that followed, and finally by the US invasion in 2003.
According to a master plan produced by US firm Parsons Brinckerhoff for the Iraqi electricity ministry and unveiled last month, a whopping $80bn of investment is needed over the next 20 years to meet Iraq's power needs, about the same amount as the country's entire 2011 national budget.
It said that if the plan's investments and recommendations are implemented on schedule, "capacity will be sufficient to meet the demand of Iraq with adequate reserves by 2013 or 2014".
But the government's worries are more immediate: What to do before temperatures and tempers soar next summer?
Currently, power generated domestically or imported from Iran and Syria totals no more than 6 500 megawatts, while demand is estimated at 13 500 megawatts, and growing.
Privately-owned generators, which in neighbourhoods across the country churn out about 5 000 megawatts, make up some of that shortfall, but not everyone can afford to pay for private supplies.
Demand outstripping supply
"The biggest issue in electricity, in my view, is the difference between supply and demand," said Brigadier General Jeffrey Buchanan, the spokesperson for US forces in Iraq.
He said supplies have been increasing at a trot, but demand has been galloping ahead as Iraqis, starved of consumer goods by more than a decade of sanctions following Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, have gone on a spending spree as import duties have been slashed and new products have flooded shops.
Now, international technology brands like Panasonic, Toshiba, LG and Samsung entice consumers with billboards mushrooming across the war-ravaged capital.
"Much of the equipment needed to boost generation has already been bought and delivered to Iraq," said Adel Mahdi, advisor to the electricity minister. But he cautioned it would take at least 12-18 months before the equipment can be installed and brought online.
"By next summer we will have only an extra generation capacity of 1 500 MW, but this will be swallowed up by the increase in demand," Mahdi said.
"I expect the situation next summer to be the same as it was last summer. This means that this summer we will have no more than eight hours of electricity a day across Iraq."