Rebuilding the Electricity Grid in Iraq
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JIM LEHRER: Now, to rebuilding Iraq. Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW-Chicago revisits an Iraqi- American who is trying to put the pieces back together in his native land.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: It’s been six months since Aiham Alsammarae has been at work at the engineering consulting firm he owns in suburban Chicago. He’s back for a short break from the job he’s held in Iraq for the last year and a half, the minister of electricity. He says things have improved in Iraq since we spoke with him in May.
AIHAM ALSAMMARAE, Minister of Electricity, Iraq: The electricity is much better than the war before. The water is running with all the problem which we have right now. I don’t like to say that we are doing very good, but I think, in the condition which we are in, which is the security problem, we are doing very good in relation to that.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The U.S. has allocated $5.6 billion to upgrade the power system, and Alsammarae says Iraq now produces 5,500 megawatts of power, up nearly 70 percent over pre-war levels.
But as Iraq recovers, it is estimated that at least seventy- five hundred to twenty-five thousand megawatts will be needed to meet the growing demand. There are still times of the day when the electricity is off, but it is on a schedule as opposed to the random cut-offs Iraqis experienced earlier.
AIHAM ALSAMMARAE: Some people they have 12 hours, some people they have 16 hours, some people have 20 hours, and some… the lucky guys, they have 24 hours. If I put all this together as a ratio, I think we’re out in the area of 65 percent electricity.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: It has not been easy getting to those levels. Insurgent attacks have made replacing electrical equipment damaged by the war, looting and years of neglect difficult. Alsammarae says transporting new generators from Iraq’s borders to a power plant is a logistical and security nightmare.
AIHAM ALSAMMARAE: This is a very big generator, so sometimes we have to go, like, five miles per hour — an excellent target for anyone to shoot us. So you have a convoy of probably, let’s say, 40 cars, 50 cars, trucks with many small cars around them, like the police and the security and probably sometimes helicopters, army… American Army helicopters is watching the area for us when they are moving these.
We play also with the emotions of the people. We say this is… we put big signs on it. “This is for Electricity Ministry.” “This is to help you bring electricity to you and to your family.” “This is…” so you put too many things around to make everybody feel very bad if anything happened to these– except, of course, those guys.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Has that technique worked?
AIHAM ALSAMMARAE: Worked most of the time.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Generators have been attacked three times, slowing the timetable for bringing more electricity on line. But Alsammarae says once the generators get to the power plants, they are well protected.
AIHAM ALSAMMARAE: I have 7,000 Iraqi power police, they call them, or electricity police, and those guys, they are controlling the places very good. They don’t allow anybody unless he’s employed in the power plants or in that area of work. They… we have badges for everyone. We check about… anything if they are carry weapons or anybody from the employees.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Do you think the power police are infiltrated with insurgents?
AIHAM ALSAMMARAE: Yes, definitely. Anybody tell you no, he’s wrong.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: While power plants are well protected, the transmission lines remain vulnerable to insurgents’ attacks. As of September, 600 towers have been knocked out.
AIHAM ALSAMMARAE: Everybody can reach them. Everybody can go and put some explosive things around the tower and put it down. And the tower… when the tower go down, it bring usually couple towers with it because the tension.
And this is give me big job to go and send a crew to fix all these towers. Like, let’s say five towers went down, it take me a week to put them back.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Though Alsammarae has found one solution to protecting the lines.
AIHAM ALSAMMARAE: Well, we have tribes, they live on the transmission line. The transmission line go through their tribes. So we talk with their sheiks to say, like, if they protect that one from any foreigners to do anything wrong, foreigners to the tribe, so they have just to catch them or tell us or protect it.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: How has that worked?
AIHAM ALSAMMARAE: It worked good. And the tribes? Excellent, but cost us money. Everything in Iraq is money right now. Everything is money everywhere.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Despite the security efforts, Alsammarae has lost almost 100 employees.
AIHAM ALSAMMARAE: They kidnap one of my general managers for one of the stations, and this is almost two months. We don’t even hear anything about him. They don’t tell us. I just lost two days ago a very close relative and a friend. And he get just shot in front of his home. And I… they told me here. He’s a crisis for me because… so this is make you feel very bad and you feel that, probably, they will get you also next day.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Alsammarae is well protected; 50 armed guards are with him 24 hours a day. He visits power plants in a seven-car convoy. Describe to me what this convoy looks like.
AIHAM ALSAMMARAE: Seven cars, all the same color, the same things. All of them land cruisers– I think it’s a Toyota cars– and all of them white and running like crazy and changing places and we make it.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: So what’s your feeling sitting in the midst of this convoy?
AIHAM ALSAMMARAE: In the beginning, I think a lot. Now, I’m not thinking. I start reading the newspaper or ready for the phones, talking on the phones with the work, with the stations. Looks like normal life for me.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Do they also go home with you?
AIHAM ALSAMMARAE: They come with me. Yes, of course. And some of them sleep inside the home.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: How many people do you have at home?
AIHAM ALSAMMARAE: I have also almost 50 to protect the home. Yeah. I mean, they keep shooting at me, so I have to protect myself, right? It’s normal.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Still, Alsammarae insists most Iraqis feel safer now than they did when Saddam Hussein was in power.
AIHAM ALSAMMARAE: I say it is much safer because Iraqis in the previous regime can be picked from their homes any minute without even warning, without even paper, and he goes and nobody knows about him. Where is he? If he’s lucky, he come back to his home. If he’s not, he’s gone — everybody in fear from the secret police and the Saddam followers. Now, we don’t have that.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But now, you can walk outside your house and a car bomb could go off, or, as your friend and your relative, you could get shot in the face.
AIHAM ALSAMMARAE: I mean, it is how you look at it. I mean, if you are in the outside walking and, suddenly, there is a car bomb, okay, or you are in the home and you and your family and all the relatives, all of them, they go to the jail and nobody knows about them until either you get lucky or you lose them all. So it is… you have to weigh it. I think the Iraqis already knows the… they already feel the freedom.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: So, despite the risks, Alsammarae plans to remain in Iraq at least until the elections, scheduled to be held next January.
JIM LEHRER: Iraq’s deputy electricity minister said last week that even under ideal circumstances, Baghdad will experience blackouts until at least 2009.