TOPICS > Politics

Rebuilding Iraq

June 18, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: Now, a look at the ongoing difficulties in rebuilding Iraq on two critical fronts: Electricity and oil. Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW- Chicago begins with a report on the man in charge of improving Iraq’s electrical system.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Aiham Alsammarae is back home in suburban Chicago for a few days, home from his job as the minister of electricity in Iraq. These days, dining in a restaurant without bodyguards is a treat.

AIHAM ALSAMMARAE: There it’s terrible. You have 20, 30 guys just to protect you… you know how it looks.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: An Iraqi exile who made Chicago his home 27 years ago, Alsammarae has spent the last turbulent year in Baghdad. There he is always surrounded by bodyguards. It’s been quite an adjustment for him to go from running a consulting firm in suburban Chicago to trying to restore Iraq’s battered electrical system.

AIHAM ALSAMMARE: Suddenly I am running 52,000 employees, very corrupted government, in addition that I have very bad equipment to run with to make electricity. And when I go to the work, you never know who is going to shoot you because everybody has a gun. You don’t know if he’s a policeman, he’s a civilian, he’s a civilian secret police, you don’t know because there’s too many people carrying guns.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Alsammarae says Iraq now has electricity for three-hour cycles. Capacity has been stuck in a range around 4,000 megawatts for months. Not only is that less than during the Saddam Hussein era, but it is also far below the American promise of 6,000 megawatts. But unlike when Hussein was in power, all of Iraq gets the same amount of electricity, rather than concentrating it in Baghdad. Alsammarae hopes to increase production by September to at least five continual hours of electricity followed by an hour of darkness and full restoration by January. But security concerns make meeting that timetable a daunting task.

AIHAM ALSAMMARE: I am working in the hell. Those terrorists, when they knock one of the transmission lines, sometimes I cannot go and send a crew right away. I mean, to fix it is not easy because they keep shooting on us. Until we bring big police power or army power with us, we cannot fix it. So what’s this? I mean, it’s not a normal environment.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Alsammarae says insurgents target electrical plants and attack at the first sign of progress. Last month a brand-new plant failed to go online after two Russian technicians working on the plant were killed.

AIHAM ALSAMMARE: All the Russians left. I mean, last time, like two months ago, I… they took like eight guys or something, abduct them, and they kidnapped them, and as a result of that I lost 400 of them. And I play all the games I have in my hand to keep the other 350. After they of them got shot, two of them, the others left. What I have now is 50 guys left.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Alsammarae lives in his old family home in Baghdad with an armed staff. The home was attacked in May, and his family back in the United States fears for his safety. But Alsammarae now plans to stay until the January elections.

AIHAM ALSAMMARE: I am there. Nobody will run me, I mean, especially the terrorists. No way. I’m staying there until I finish the job, whatever job they give me, of course.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: What does your family say?

AIHAM ALSAMMARE: I can put it like that: They are a combination of sometimes they are supporting me, sometimes they are really mad at me. They wish that I left by June 30.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Even after the assassinations of two more members of the interim government, Alsammarae remains determined to return, though he admits there are many times in Iraq when he thinks about calling it quits.

AIHAM ALSAMMARE: Whenever I think about my family and think about the good life I have here, I think to leave tomorrow, but I’m committed politically there, and plus I see that this is opportunity for Iraq. You have a big country like United States and other countries trying to help build the infrastructure and build democracy. So it is really something I don’t like to miss, to participate in it. At the same time I don’t like Iraqis to miss it.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But Alsammarae is paying a high price for being a part of the interim government. Not only is his family angry, his electrical engineering consulting business is in trouble. He has lost half of his clients since leaving for Iraq and has laid off over one-third of his employees. And Alsammarae remains acutely aware that the success of the interim government rests in part on his ability to restore electricity.

AIHAM ALSAMMARE: We have to deliver a secure country to the elected government. We have to. If we want them to be elected freely, we have to have a secure country. We have to have a good security. And, of course, if the security improves, every other sector will be improved very fast.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: So if you could get the security, you could get the electricity going?

AIHAM ALSAMMARE: Of course. Everything comes, not just electricity. Oil, would be pumped more oil. Now, every time we have oil to be reaching two and a half million, they bomb one of the… they destroy one of the pipes, and we go back again.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: After Chicago, Alsammarae went to Washington, D.C., to lobby the Pentagon and the State Department. He wanted to make sure that the $5.2 billion earmarked for rebuilding Iraq’s electricity would continue to flow. And he had reports of new violence to deal with. Three General Electric employees and their bodyguards were among 13 killed in a suicide bombing. The three had been working with Alsammarae’s team on power plants.

AIHAM ALSAMMARE: It’s part of the campaign they are doing, those guys, to destroy the country and making chaos. But I think it is… I know it’s a big loss for losing almost 500 to 600 megawatts, but I think we will succeed in a couple days to bring it back. And we will keep fighting until we succeed.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: So Alsammarae will return to Baghdad, knowing that he faces the toughest challenge of his life, but determined to see it through.

MARGARET WARNER: Jeffrey Brown now explores further Iraq’s efforts to protect and export its oil.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oil is the economic lifeblood of Iraq, and it’s increasingly under attack by insurgents. In the past week alone, several explosions near the southern city of Basra have damaged major pipelines, causing the flow of oil to shift in the Persian Gulf. In the North this week a bomb damaged a pipeline near Kirkuk. A short time later gunmen attacked and killed an Iraqi oil executive. Edward Wong has been covering the oil story for the New York Times. He joins us now from Baghdad. Edward, do authorities there believe these are coordinated and well planned attacks?

EDWARD WONG: The American military and Iraqi officials have said that they believe these are fairly well planned attacks. They believe they have been insurgency get smarter in certain parts of the country and go straight for infrastructure projects, such as power plants or oil pipelines because they realize that this is one of the easiest ways to cripple Iraq, cripple parts of the country like its economy as well as get ordinary Iraqis more angry at the occupation, for example, if there are blackouts, to attack a power plan in Iraq, Iraqis might get more incensed at an Iraqi occupation. An attack on the oil pipelines really shakes the confidence of the Iraqis on the security forces here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Have you been able to gauge the impact that it’s having both financially and as you say psychologically?

EDWARD WONG: Well, the attack on the set of oil pipelines south of Basra took place on Monday and Tuesday. The first attack took place on Monday. The second one was discovered around noon on Tuesday, and on Tuesday the oil officials said they were shutting down entirely the port on the Persian Gulf where they export oil so that was a very damaging event for the economy here. It costs — it can cost several hundred million dollars in terms of lost revenue, perhaps even up to a billion by some measures, and the Iraqis have said that they might be able to increase oil output once they get the pipelines up and running to sort of make up for part of that, but it’s been clear right now is exactly — it’s unclear how successful that will be.

JEFFREY BROWN: Who is providing the security on the ground there, and why is it so hard to keep these facilities safe?

EDWARD WONG: I think in different parts of the country, different parties provide security for the pipeline. If you look at the pipelines around the country, their lengths are enormous. They run across entire sections of barren land and go out to the port near Basra, or, for example, they run up to the Turkish border and go across to Turkey, so it’s hard to patrol the pipelines. I visited one of the export pipelines in the North one time that ran from the oil fields in Kirkuk, and I went around to some of the guard check posts and at one of the tents I visited there was simply an old man with an AK-47 sitting there in the tent within view of the pipeline and the next guard post or next tent was a ways away. You couldn’t even see it, so insurgents could easily come up to these pipelines and bomb them or even overwhelm the guards, if they wanted to.

JEFFREY BROWN: Edward, what can you tell us about Ghazi Talabani, the oil executive gunned down in Kirkuk? Do you know why he was targeted?

EDWARD WONG: That took place on Tuesday, and there’s a couple of things about Mr. Talibani. First, he’s from the clan of Jalal Talibani, a prominent Kurdish leader. He leads the big Kurdish party and Ghazi Talabani was a liaison between the oil ministry and a company called Aranis which is U.K.–Based security contracting firm that was contracted out to help provide security for parts of Iraq. Also, in that city, in Kirkuk, there are ethnic tensions between Arabs, Turks, Kurds and a few other members of Arab or sectarian groups so he was possibly also gunned down because of his affiliation with the Kurds. There have been assassinations of Kurdish leaders as well as assassinations of other ethnic or sectarian leaders in that city.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now there have been reports today that the repair effort in the South, the southern pipelines, is going along fairly smoothly. What can you tell us about that?

EDWARD WONG: There are some reports that one of the two pipelines that was damaged in the South might start pumping oil by Sunday, and it will still take several more days beyond Sunday for it to get up to the oil flow that it has before the sabotage. The second pine line, it’s unclear how quickly that will be repaired. Right now the part where it was damaged is still buried under dirt or sand, and engineers are trying to assess the damage. They will have to dig up that part of it, and they will take a look and depending on how bad the damage is then they will be able to repair it and also give an assessment of how long the repairs will take.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Iyad Allawi, Iraq’s interim prime minister, said earlier this week that they expect more attacks in the days leading up to the June 30 handover. Do authorities I think oil facilities will continue to be targeted and if so what are they doing to prevent it?

EDWARD WONG: I think the pattern of the insurgence has been the infrastructure and people don’t see that changing anytime soon. The insurgency has been getting smarter, as I said earlier, and there wouldn’t be any reason for them to pull back from the attacks, especially given how the attacks are and how crippling they can be to the country. Right now they are trying to find ways to protect the oil pipeline, but as I said earlier it’s almost an impossible task to protect every inch of those pipelines and the insurgents are smart enough at the current point to try to locate the weak spots there.

JEFFREY BROWN: And given the importance of this, for the Iraqi economy, have the new authorities said what they plan to do in the days, weeks, months, after they take over?

EDWARD WONG: Well, obviously security is the one fault line that runs through basically everything Iraq, and until the new Iraqi government with the occupation forces can control the insurgency, can really control, it then foreign investment in this country will be slim. Right now the control of insurgency hasn’t been getting better. There’s been some signs in some parts of the country that they have managed to clamp down on guerrilla fighters but also we’ve seen some fairly deadly attacks this week, and whether American forces and Iraqi forces can clamp down on those, that’s a hard question that remains to be seen.

JEFFREY BROWN: Edward Wong of the New York Times thanks for joining us.

EDWARD WONG: Thanks a lot.