Iraq offers action, but no miracle, on power crisis

Fri Jun 25, 2010 10:14am EDT

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* Gov't facing rising anger over dire public services

* Political undercurrent to street protests

By Rania El Gamal and Muhanad Mohammed

BAGHDAD, June 25 (Reuters) - Iraq's caretaker government promised to tackle crippling energy shortages that have stirred public protests, but said it had 'no magic wand' to raise supplies beyond the few hours a day currently available.

Unrest over Iraq's dire public services seven years after the U.S.-led invasion has sharpened frustration with political leaders who have yet to form a government more than 3 1/2 months since Iraqis braved bombs and threats to vote.

Two people died in clashes with police in the past week, prompting Electricity Minister Karim Waheed to quit on Monday. Shi'ite rivals of Prime Minister Nuri-al-Maliki have supported the demonstrations over power shortages, heaping pressure on Maliki as he tries to secure a second term in coalition talks.

Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani, who has temporarily taken over the electricity portfolio, cautioned there was "no magic wand or miracle" to improve on the few hours per day of power that homes and businesses currently survive on.

He said measures would be taken to increase supplies, with temperatures reaching 50 degrees Celsius in a country also suffering from severe water shortages.

The steps include reducing and diverting power allocation from Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, long a resented symbol of the U.S. occupation that is off limits to most Iraqis and now home to the seat of Iraqi government.

THEFT

Shahristani said two power facilities had been restored, including one in the southern city of Nassiriya, where police used water cannon on Monday to disperse protesters hurling rocks at the offices of the provincial council.

"I am not saying these measures will solve the problem," he told a news conference. "But they will help alleviate the suffering of the citizens."

The Iraqi army has also pledged to crack down on electricity theft. Baghdad provincial governor Salah Abdul-Razzaq, an ally of Maliki, said on Thursday that under current production, each household should receive at least 15 hours of electricity per day, but "abuses and poor distribution" mean they get far less.

Maliki has told Iraqis the problem will not be fixed for another two years when multibillion-dollar deals with General Electric (GE.N) and Siemens (SIEGn.DE) bear fruit and double the capacity of Iraq's creaking national grid.

But endemic corruption and unfulfilled pledges have eroded public trust in politicians who promise stability and prosperity on the back of improved security and deals with oil majors to develop Iraq's vast but underexploited oilfields.

The power protests have emboldened rivals of Maliki who hope to form a government with his mainly Shi'ite State of Law alliance but deny him a second term as prime minister. Talks will likely yet drag on for weeks, possibly months.

"A government that respects its people does not point guns at their chests or target them with live bullets," said Ammar al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), one of the main Shi'ite blocs jockeying to enter government. (Additional reporting by Khalid al-Ansary; Writing by Matt Robinson; editing by Raloph Boulton)

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