WASHINGTON -- Getting full-time electric power turned on in Baghdad, a key wartime goal toward which the United States has spent $4.2 billion dollars, won't be accomplished until the year 2013, U.S. officials said yesterday, in what others called a significant setback for the new U.S. initiatives to quell Iraq's bloody insurgency.
Power outages in the Iraqi capital are frequent, leaving residents without electricity for an average of 17 or 18 hours a day. For most residents without personal generators, that means not just no lights but dead radios and televisions, heaters, washing machines and water pumps.
Army Brig. Gen. Michael J. Walsh, the senior U.S. military officer overseeing reconstruction efforts, told reporters yesterday via video teleconference that the Iraq government plans to increase power generation "to catch up with demand" for electric power by 2013, "somewhere in around that area."
When President Bush announced in January that he was sending additional troops to Baghdad, he said the initiative must go "beyond military operations." Ordinary Iraqis, Bush said, "must see visible improvements" in their neighborhoods.
Reliable electric power is only one such improvement, but it is a critical one, counterinsurgency specialists said.
Having the city regularly plunged into darkness makes it more difficult to sweep neighborhoods for insurgents and maintain security, American combat commanders have said.
Continuing shortages of electricity and other vital government services also violate a key provision of the counterinsurgency strategy written by Gen. David Petraeus, the new top military commander in Iraq. That strategy dictates that a government must provide tangible benefits to its citizens in order to attract their loyalty away from the insurgents, in this case the sectarian militias at the center of Iraq's bloody conflict.
The United States has poured almost $22 billion into reconstruction projects in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, intended to provide jobs, health care, education, power and clean water. But much of the money has been siphoned off for security initiatives such as training and equipping Iraqi army and police units, according to a report in January by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.
As a result, many of the reconstruction projects are unfinished. But the power problem is the most significant to the war effort.
"It's critical because electricity is a key measure of how well the government is providing for its people," said Kalev Sepp, a retired U.S. Army special forces officer and a counterinsurgency consultant to the U.S. military command in Baghdad.
"People living in Baghdad have to make a choice to support the government or support the insurgency, even if they do that passively," said Sepp, who teaches special forces at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.
A key to fighting an insurgency is to convince neighborhood people to provide intelligence on insurgents, Sepp said.
"Right now it's going the other way - when people see an unusual collection of cars, or people moving around at 2 a.m., they don't report it to the government because the government is not helping them," he said. "They have no stake in the government to balance the retribution they'd suffer from the insurgents" by reporting on them to the government.
Electricity generation in Iraq today is slightly below prewar levels. According to U.S. State Department data, Iraq was producing 3,958 megawatts per month before March 2003, and as of mid-February, production was running at 3,640 megawatts. Baghdad enjoyed 16 to 24 average hours of power per day, and enjoyed an average of 6.7 hours per day in December, 4.4 hours average per day in January, and 5.9 hours so far in February.
American and Iraqi engineers have struggled with rickety power generating and distribution facilities and sabotage by insurgents and scavengers.
The larger problem, Walsh said, is a good-news one: that since 2003, more people are able to buy electric appliances. He said demand for electricity has risen 70 percent since 2003.
"We find ourselves constantly chasing increasing demand," Walsh said.
Walsh emphasized that distribution of electricity nationwide had increased, under a plan to distribute power equitably among Iraq's regions rather than concentrating it in Baghdad, as was done under the regime of Saddam Hussein.
He said "much of the country" is receiving 10 to 12 hours of power a day.
Bush and others have pointed out that Baghdad is critical to the counterinsurgency campaign,
"Baghdad is the key to the future of Iraq," Lt. Gen. Ray Ordierno, the ground forces commander in Iraq, told reporters recently. He said the new U.S. -led initiative there would "take months in order to be successful."
Waiting six years to get the power turned on, said Sepp, "is too long."