Former Iraqi Electricity Minister Discusses Electricity Problems
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ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Car bombs, suicide attacks, political assassinations, all have increased in the months following the Iraqi elections. And all have added to the ongoing problem with the U.S. led reconstruction of the country.
Since going to war in Iraq 2003, the U.S. has earmarked $21 billion in resources for reconstruction. So far, $7.5 billion of that has been paid to contractors. Aiham al-Sammarae, back home in the United States for a brief visit, was minister of electricity in the former government.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: So is the situation worse now than it was –
AIHAM AL-SAMMARAE: Much worse. Much, much worse; I think since this government took over the security I can say worse than before by probably ten times.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Al-Sammarae admits, like security, electricity production is worse than it was seven months ago when we last interviewed him. Then, Iraq had 5,500 megawatts of available power.
AIHAM AL-SAMMARAE: Well, I think we are down to 4,500 right now, and that means it is four hours no electricity, two hours electricity right now in Iraq and this is hot summer and it’s very bad to have that in Iraq right now.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The problem, says al-Sammarae, is not so much the infrastructure as it was earlier. At least two new power plants have been finished, another is under construction and three more are being rehabilitated for a total of 3,500 new megawatts of power. But even those that are finished are not running. The problem: No fuel.
AIHAM AL-SAMMARAE: We have the 1,850 megawatt run by fuel, diesel fuel, and we said during the summer we needed $300 million to buy that fuel. The government failed to give us that money and American, they don’t like to spend the money from the donations which they promise us, so we’re stuck. We don’t have that, so this is 1,850 megawatt count. Okay, in addition –
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: That you could have if you had money for the fuel?
AIHAM AL-SAMMARAE: Of course, it’s available; the machine is sitting idle without doing anything. I mean, give them the fuel, they run them.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But it isn’t just a lack of money that’s holding up Iraq’s power; it’s also the constant insurgent attacks on the vulnerable transmission lines.
AIHAM AL-SAMMARAE: Whenever they hit the line, transmission system because it is a grid, national grid, it’s connected all over together. So if we are bringing for the North in the area of 1,000 megawatts to Baghdad, if they hit the transmission line, which is transferring that power, that’s it, it’s gone. You don’t have 1,000 megawatts in Baghdad.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The country has begun charging for electricity, but few pay the fees.
AIHAM AL-SAMMARAE: You can collect it probably from 20 percent who is close to you, and they are either — you can say they are middle class or high middle class and you can go to their homes and collect it — between no security in the country and the guy if he like to collect the money he can get shot or between also the — what they call it they give the money to the guy and he doesn’t transfer it to the government because he doesn’t care because nobody can punish him.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: He puts it in his pocket?
AIHAM AL-SAMMARAE: He put it in his pocket, and they give him half, they give him whatever; there is a lot of things without law and order in the country you cannot do.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Al-Sammarae had just turned over control of the electricity ministry to his successor, who he thinks will have just as tough a time as he did.
AIHAM AL-SAMMARAE: The poor guy just took over; he took it on I think ten days ago; he cannot make miracles and he will never make miracles’ I know what he’s facing.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Al-Sammarae still owns an electrical engineering company in suburban Chicago. He had promised his family and his employees he would return from Iraq when a stable government emerged. That hasn’t happened, so al-Sammarae will once again return to Baghdad.
He will now pay for his own 24-hour-a-day protection and will begin looking for contracts for his engineering business. And despite all the problems he says life in Iraq is improving.
AIHAM AL-SAMMARAE: Well I am still optimistic believe me. There’s a lot of good areas is improving in Iraq. The politics is bad, security is bad, of course electricity, it is bad. But every Iraqi, some of them we multiply his salary up to 150 times, 150 times from what he be doing in Saddam time. That means he has a lot of money to go and purchase things. But we cannot control the security and this is make me mad why we cannot control it.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Al-Sammarae blames much of the upswing in the violence on the sectarian politics that have emerged in Iraq.
AIHAM AL-SAMMARAE: I mean, they think it is by making Shiite and Sunni in Iraq, this is a seed for civil war in Iraq. Iraqi is not sectarian. I mean, I told you before my wife is Shia and I am Sunni; and my sister married to Shia and she is Sunni’ my brother married to Shia and he’s Sunni. I mean, we are sushis[ph], all of us, right? So we are not Sunni, not Shia actually. So it is Iraq is like that I mean especially the cities. The cities in Iraq is a mix; there is nobody thinking about this.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: He is returning to Iraq to try and build a political organization that will reflect those views.
AIHAM AL-SAMMARAE: I have people with me are very prominent people, are Kurd and some people are Shia Arab and I have Sunni. Those guys — and I have Christian and I have Turkmen with me. So we’re trying to do, we’re trying to make umbrella organizations.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Al-Sammarae now gives no timetable for his return to the U.S. He’s stuck in Iraq, he says, until the promise he sees in his native country comes a little closer to reality.
GWEN IFILL: Yesterday, back in Baghdad, al-Sammarae said leaders of two Sunni insurgent groups have now agreed to negotiate with the Iraqi government to end their attacks.
GWEN IFILL: For part two on Iraq, Ray Suarez spoke by phone earlier today with Jonathan Finer of the Washington Post’s Baghdad bureau.
RAY SUAREZ: Jonathan Finer, welcome. Have you been able to independently verify that the conversations between al-Sammarae and the insurgents have even taken place?
JONATHAN FINER: Well, we know that al- Sammarae has reported these conversations to the U.S. government, both in Washington and to embassy officials here in Baghdad, and we hear that he’s very well connected within some of these insurgent groups.
You know, he claims that he’s met with these insurgent leaders ten times over the last four months in his home in Baghdad, and to that level of specificity, no, we certainly can’t confirm that those meetings have taken place. But it does appear that at least he’s made some informal inquiries and that he’s reported the inquiries to U.S. officials and to the Iraqi government.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, I was just to follow up just that way. Is there any indication either from al-Sammarae himself or from other sources in Iraq that he was operating with the knowledge or consent beforehand of the Iraqi government?
JONATHAN FINER: Well, I’m certain that he’s operating with their knowledge now because of all the media inquiries the government has gotten about his coming forward and saying he’s been having these conversations. But to be honest, the prime minister’s spokesman, Laith Kuba, was somewhat dismissive, I would say, of the concept of al-Sammarae serving as a broker between the governments and the insurgent leaders.
Kuba said that the government itself had been making inquires to some of these sort of more moderate — if you want to describe them that way — insurgent groups, but that he was not aware of any initiative or any successful efforts to sort of bridge this gap left by al-Sammarae when we asked Laith Kuba about that yesterday.
RAY SUAREZ: Is there anything like a united command in the world of the Iraqi resistance? If al-Sammaraee was talking to a few representatives, would there be any way to be confident that you could bring a large part of the insurgency with you in a peace deal?
JONATHAN FINER: Confident. And I think the easy answer to that would be no. The insurgency here is well known to be extremely diffuse and fragmented and not certainly to be centrally led or organized.
That being said, there is some sense that sort of the foreign fighter element of the insurgency is sort of coordinated around its central core and that perhaps the Iraqis — the native Iraqi insurgency, which some Sunni leaders like to refer to as the resistance because they differentiate it from the foreign fighters — may actually have sort of a core set of commanders and political leaders as well.
But to be honest, still so little is known about how these groups are organized, and the overwhelming impression that we get from people that study these things is that they are essentially very fragmented and very sort of not centrally organized in that way.
RAY SUAREZ: How would you describe the tempo of insurgent attacks in recent weeks? Is there anything to indicate that they are slowing, quickening, that there’s a desire to stop the bombing and the shooting?
JONATHAN FINER: Well, as you probably know, the month of May was about as bad as it gets in terms of insurgent attacks, in terms of car bombs, in terms of attacks targeting specifically civilians. If anything, the trend was going in that direction.
The last few days, I guess in a relative sense, have been quiet; although there was a car bomb today that killed three people and another that could have very easily killed people, but for whatever reason didn’t. So it would be hard to conclude that that sort of long period of sustained violence has slowed; although, the last few days have sort of been quiet and people have noted that.
RAY SUAREZ: In the discussions about these overtures to the resistance, has there been an emphasis on a native Iraqi insurgency rather than that that’s constituted by al-Qaida or foreign-born fighters?
JONATHAN FINER: Yes, that’s right. al-Sammarae said that he’s not interested in dealing with the sort of Zarqawi — the group led by Jordanian Abu Musab Zarqawi, which is called al-Qaida in Iraq — he said he’s not interested in dealing with that group because they target civilians, because their tactics are more brutal and because they’re not native Iraqis who he describes as sort of the resistance that’s here to sort of remove the occupying forces from their own country.
He said he’s very much focusing his efforts on the groups that are led by Iraqis and that are comprised predominantly of Iraqi Sunnis. So he definitely draws that distinction. I’m not sure, you know, that U.S. officials for whatever reason are more interested or less interested in negotiating with one of these groups or the other, but certainly Alsammarae has drawn that distinction in terms of who he’s reached out to.
RAY SUAREZ: Have there been any changes in wider Sunni Arab circles, that is, a feeling that perhaps there’s regret over not participating in the election or a willingness to find a way to end the insurgency from more legitimate circles?
JONATHAN FINER: Well, there certainly have been signs, and very gradual signs, that the Sunnis are more inclined to want to participate in the political process than they were. The Sunnis have formed a political block, a lot of moderate and religious Sunni groups came together to form a political block that they said was going to help negotiate some participation for the Sunnis in the process of drafting Iraq’s permanent constitution, which is already under way.
As it currently stands, there’s a 55-member committee that’s doing this, and there are only two Sunni names on it. Sunnis are trying to get this committee expanded and get more Sunni names added. Today, they came out and said they wanted 25 Sunnis added to that list. You know, a lot of Shiite groups and Kurd groups — didn’t get that many, but the government and the Shiite-led government has said they definitely do want to incorporate more Sunnis into that committee.
RAY SUAREZ: Could that be the key to both getting more Sunni buy-in to the process and calming things down domestically?
JONATHAN FINER: I think there’s a lot of optimism about that. When Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. Secretary of State, when she was here, certainly encouraged the Iraqi government to sort of promote this concept of incorporating Sunnis into this committee to give them a sense of ownership in the political process and perhaps to sort of undermine the support among moderate Sunnis for the Sunni elements of the insurgency, but it’s certainly too soon to tell whether or not this turn towards politics is going to have that effect. It’s certainly what people are hoping for.
RAY SUAREZ: Jonathan Finer of the Washington Post, thanks for being with us.
JONATHAN FINER: Thank you for having me.