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Power struggle: Baghdad's 5 million residents remain without electricity for 2 weeks

Friday, April 18, 2003

By Ellen Knickmeyer, The Associated Press

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- With the system lights around him glowing a sickly green, the chief engineer of Baghdad's key power plant stood yesterday before a control panel of bad news: Inverter failure. Cooling system failure. Circuit breaker failure.

Janan Behnam, chief engineer, right, moderates a discussion as workers try to get the electricity back on yesterday from the control room of Baghdad's key power plant, the "Daura Plant." (Michael Macor, San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

"Red. They should be red," Janan Behnam said of the lights, beacons in the battle to restore Iraq's capital to normalcy and power up the city of 5 million.

Baghdad remained in a two-week-old power outage yesterday, giving looters a cover of darkness and leaving families across the capital short on sleep as they guard homes night and day. Lacking power, the majority of businesses remain shuttered, and economic life is stilled.

Absence of basic services -- power, water and police protection -- has fueled resentment against Americans, whom Iraqis blame for the enormous disruptions in ordinary life since U.S. troops entered.

Yesterday, Iraqi electrical workers said they hoped to have the city's biggest power plant going by tomorrow, or even today -- allowing the plant, in turn, to kick start the country's largest power plant, to the south.

If that works, plant workers said, power could return in 10 days to most parts of Iraq that had it before.

Soldiers of the Army's 101st Airborne Division held the plant yesterday. Inside it, Iraqi workers labored frenetically in the control room.

The U.S. military identifies restoration of electricity as Baghdad's No. 1 need, though some of the city's residents disagree. What they need most, they say, is security -- from the robbers and criminals who struck at will in the vacuum left by the collapse of Saddam Hussein's government.

Ultimately, electricity and security are the same, power workers and many Baghdad residents contend. Water is involved in the equation, too: Purification plants need power to run their systems.

"Without power, there is no peace," said Haifa Aziz, the headscarfed manager of a southern substation, standing watch yesterday in Behnam's power plant control room as he and others strained to bring the grids on line. "For hospitals, for schools, for the people, they need electricity."

U.S. Army E2 Kenneth Severence of Erie, Pa., right, and E2 Marcus Wade,of Ft. Worth, Texas, guard the front entrance to the Daura power plant yesterday in western Baghdad as engineers worked to repair the city's largest power plant. (Michael Macor, San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

Across the city, electricity workers give different accounts of why Baghdad's lights went out on the night of April 3 as U.S. forces closed in on the capital.

The reason for the blackout was unclear. The U.S. Central Command said its aircraft did not attack power stations -- in line with its strategy of going after regime targets rather than civilian infrastructure.

Some Iraqis have said a general order went out the first week of April to shut down the power system. Even in the face of that alleged order, electrical officials said, system employees and city leaders had tried to keep the power flowing. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful.

Behnam says he knows nothing of any shutdown order. The problem, he and others at the south Baghdad plant say, was breaks in the lines that supply fuel to the plant.

Gunshots, not U.S. bombs, shattered the lines -- "a mistake," Behnam said without elaborating. U.S. Army officers confirmed that line breaks were the key problem reported to them.

Without the fuel, the plant produced only one of the seven to nine megawatts it needed to power itself up and get electricity surging. One megawatt was enough to power the plant's overhead lights and illuminate the panels in the control room.

Yesterday, a hush ruled the massive concrete power plant. The giant turbines were motionless, and the control room held only an expectant, tense quiet. No steam rose from the plant's smokestacks, which tower above southern Baghdad.

Throughout the U.S. bombing of the city, Behnam showed up at the plant daily, faithful to his job of 27 years. "It's my home -- my second home," he said, shrugging.

When the American bombing stopped and U.S. troops entered, Behnam said, he drove door to door to persuade plant employees to return to work -- and offer them a ride.

Gas, too, has been gravely short and public transport scarce. Some plant workers returned to work via taxi or were shuttled in by power-plant vehicles dispatched by Behnam. By yesterday, 350 of the plant's 600 workers were back on the job.

Elsewhere, U.S. Marine spokesman Staff Sgt. Jose Guillen said, six diesel power plants were back on line. Each supplies electricity to about 500 homes. Scarce petroleum also was helping start water-purification plants, he said.

Marines said U.S. forces distributed 5,000 cellular phones to key Iraqi personnel, such as police and firefighters. With phones out since before American troops' entry, the mobile phone handouts were meant to allow crucial contacts in emergencies.

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