Analysis: Patchy power fixes head off Iraq protests, for now

BAGHDAD Wed Sep 14, 2011 10:06am EDT

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The Iraqi government used a patchwork of short-term fixes to keep people from rioting over power shortages at the height of the summer but the reprieve, like the electricity supply, could be a fleeting thing.

With a permanent solution years away, future shortages could lead to street demonstrations, give ammunition to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's political rivals and further shake Iraqis' limited faith in democracy, analysts said.

The dilapidated national grid still produces only half of what it needs more than eight years after the 2003 invasion, and earlier this year Iraq faced angry protests over shortages of power, food rations and basic services.

Baghdad expected more of the same as searing 50-degree-Celsius (122 degrees F) summer heat shortened tempers in June, July and August. But the protests did not materialize.

Analysts said the government just bought itself time.

"No one could say that electricity has improved even by one step," Baghdad University political analyst Nabil Salim said.

"Why are the people so far silent? Iraqis are very patient, and there are proactive attempts from the government, every now and then, to extinguish the embers of complaint."

Maliki's government earlier this year dropped a plan to double electricity fees and instead promised Iraqis 1,000 kilowatt-hours of free power each month.

The cabinet in May also decided to provide free fuel to neighborhood generators across the country on condition they supply 12 hours of electricity a day at reasonable prices.

And one day in early August, when the mercury exceeded 50 degrees, the government announced a national holiday, the first time it had done so even though temperatures often hit that mark.

"The government is fooling us by giving us a day off," said university professor Sahar Younis. "Maybe they heard there will be protests on that day or that there was something bad about to happen, because we have had days which were hotter than that."

"SCAPEGOATS"

Maliki also fired then-Electricity Minister Raad Shallal, from the rival Iraqiya political bloc, in early August after the government uncovered alleged irregularities worth $1.7 billion in power contracts with two foreign firms.

His predecessor, Karim Waheed, was also forced out.

"The prime minister tries to absorb the anger ... of people by sacrificing a scapegoat," said Sabah al-Saidi, a member of the integrity committee in parliament.

"Previously he sacrificed Karim Waheed and now he sacrifices Raad Shallal, but there are no drastic measures."

Electricity supplies collapsed in the chaos after the 2003 invasion when power plants were looted or went without proper maintenance. In subsequent years insurgents have targeted transmission towers and other infrastructure and the government has been unable to keep up with demand.

In much of Iraq, people receive only a few hours of power a day from the grid, forcing them to rely on private generators in their neighborhoods and homes. Intermittent power is one of the issues most often cited when Iraqis grumble about their leaders.

Iraq's electricity supply this summer was 8,300 megawatts -- including 1,900 MW produced in the semi-autonomous northern region of Kurdistan -- enough to provide eight hours of power a day, compared with peak demand of 15,000 MW during summer days, said Raad al-Haris, senior deputy minister of electricity.

Electricity officials have short-, medium- and long-range plans to solve the deficit. The first step is small power plants across Iraq to produce 5,000 megawatts by next summer.

Meanwhile the government is working to install 11,000 MW of gas turbines it bought from General Electric and Siemens by 2013 and to harness associated gas from oilfields to fuel power plants. In the long-term, Iraq plans to build thermal plants.

Although officials say the shortfall will be resolved in two years, analysts and most Iraqis dismiss that idea as a fantasy.

The delay will gradually increase pressure on Maliki's fragile governing coalition of Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish factions, and give his rivals a cudgel to wield against him.

"When we see a struggle to win authority among the political groups, they may use the street in this struggle to put pressure on the government," said Yahya Kubaisy, an analyst at Iraq's Institute for Strategic Studies.

EIGHT HOURS OF ELECTRICITY A DAY

The ministry said the power supply was better this summer, particularly in August.

"There were signs of improvement which the citizens noticed ... around 15 percent," said Mahdi Daham, the deputy manager of the ministry's planning department. "God willing, there will be more improvement next year."

Kurdistan, where security is much less of an issue than elsewhere in Iraq, is also much better off when it comes to power, providing around 20 hours a day which reached 22 hours during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in August.

Kurdistan sold around 150 MW of electricity to the disputed northern oil region of Kirkuk, a volatile mix of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen that the Kurdish government claims as its own, to improve the power supply to 16 hours a day, Haris said.

In the long run, a failure to produce adequate power may undermine the already shaky faith in democracy of Iraqis who remember the plentiful power provided by Saddam Hussein, political analyst Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie said.

"The biggest risk is that the street starts to lose confidence in the democratic system ... because the democratic system has failed to provide the amount of services that were available during the dictatorship," he said.

(Editing by Jim Loney and Sonya Hepinstall)

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