Instructions on How to Repair the Electrical Grid in Iraq

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 11 months ago

The New York Times brings us a story about the electrical system in Iraq, its unreliability, and the nexus with militias and gang control of the countryside.

Armed groups increasingly control the antiquated switching stations that channel electricity around Iraq, the electricity minister said Wednesday.

That is dividing the national grid into fiefs that, he said, often refuse to share electricity generated locally with Baghdad and other power-starved areas in the center of Iraq.

The development adds to existing electricity problems in Baghdad, which has been struggling to provide power for more than a few hours a day because insurgents regularly blow up the towers that carry power lines into the city.

The government lost the ability to control the grid centrally after the American-led invasion in 2003, when looters destroyed electrical dispatch centers, the minister, Karim Wahid, said in a news briefing attended also by United States military officials.

The briefing had been intended, in part, to highlight successes in the American-financed reconstruction program here.

But it took an unexpected turn when Mr. Wahid, a highly respected technocrat and longtime ministry official, began taking questions from Arab and Western journalists.

Because of the lack of functioning dispatch centers, Mr. Wahid said, ministry officials have been trying to control the flow of electricity from huge power plants in the south, north and west by calling local officials there and ordering them to physically flip switches.

But the officials refuse to follow those orders when the armed groups threaten their lives, he said, and the often isolated stations are abandoned at night and easily manipulated by whatever group controls the area.

This kind of manipulation can cause the entire system to collapse and bring nationwide blackouts, sometimes seriously damaging the generating plants that the United States has paid millions of dollars to repair.

The temptation in response to this is to contemplate ways to make the electrical grid more reliable.  But the story has what lawyers call a misdirect at the very beginning: ” … antiquated switching stations.”  This point is entirely out of context, and in fact not very meaningful or important.  All electrical grids are designed the same way.  They are interconnected, have thousands of miles of unprotected high voltage cable, important switching stations, step up and step down transformers, protective relaying, and breakers to isolate ground faults.  They are by their very nature finicky and touchy things, and while the grid in Iraq may be antiquated, the real problem is not the grid.  It is those who target the grid.

In The Rise of the JAM, we documented the rise of the Jaish al Mahdi to prominence in much of Iraq, detailing incidents where U.S. forces simply refused to engage the Mahdi militia for fear of it creating a “political problem.”  We followed up this article with Danger Signs in Shi’ite Country, where we observed that “the U.S. will choose to deal a blow to the JAM and thereby allow reconciliation among the more peaceful of the population, or it will cower to the arrogant, undisciplined teenagers roaming the streets as thugs and criminals, taking and harming whatever and whomever they wish.  The first choice means stability and security for Iraq.  The second means a complete, chaotic disaster.”

Obviously, we have chosen chaotic disaster rather than security for Iraq.  No amount of money on reconstruction will accomplish anything good as long as rogue elements are left unmolested.  Also, we are proud to bring you the news and analysis here at The Captain’s Journal before others do, and without air brushing it first.  With respect to the issue of the JAM being comprised of “arrogant, undisciplined teenagers roaming the streets as thugs and criminals,” the Washington Post brings us a story about how many in Iraq see the JAM: “They control people’s lives,” said one resident of Hurriyah, a Shiite government employee who would give his name only as Abu Mahdi, 36, because he feared Mahdi militia reprisals. Scornfully calling them uneducated, bullying teenagers, he said: “They are worse than the Baathists” - the party that held total authority under the rule of Saddam Hussein.”

The Iraqi electrical grid problems are unrelated to engineering.  To be sure, as soon as security has been restored to Iraq, we can turn loose the electrical transmission engineers who would love to reconstruct the system.  But this step awaits security.  The moral of the Iraqi story on electrical grids is just this: let’s let the electrical engineers work on the electrical system.  Let’s let the U.S. Army and Marines work on targeting the enemy, which includes the JAM, whether we want to admit it or not.

Sometimes our efforts at counterinsurgency by winning hearts and minds simply have to go through kinetic operations — in this case, combat action — to “close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver.”  There are no easy ways to do this, and we cannot throw enough money at or deploy enough engineers on this problem to make it go away.



  • Brian H

    You have to keep up. JAM and “rogue” militia have been being heavily targeted recently, and Gen. P. has indicated they will become more and more a focus as the AQI is suppressed. Malaki has backed off his protection of them.

    This will be heavily involved with retaking the Basrah area, too, as they are major players there. Too bad the Brits pooched that one so badly.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Thanks Brian. Yes, the Brits have ‘pooched’ this one badly. But may we be blunt here? Regarding the JAM being “targeted heavily,” we are only playing games so far. We have not brought to bear one one-thousandth of the pressure that will be needed. We are a long way from being finished. As for Maliki backing off of his “protection of them,” sorry, this is what he wants you to think. That is how he has played the game since he has been in power. Don’t be fooled. He is a puppet of Sistani.

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This article is filed under the category(s) Iraq,Jaish al Mahdi and was published August 24th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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