Sat, Jun 02, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Electricity black market flourishing in Baghdad


When truck driver Said Abdul-Wahab al-Obeidi needed to find a new career after the roads of Iraq grew too dangerous, he looked for a business with a bright future.

So he sold his rig, bought a massive generator and set up his own electric company.

With Baghdad's electricity network in tatters after years of corruption, neglect and attacks, a thriving black market in power has sprung up across the capital. In nearly every neighborhood, multicolored bundles of wires flow from private generators that have all but replaced the national power grid.

The black market has grown so large that US inspectors estimate private generators produce more than one-third of Iraq's power supply. In Baghdad, where many neighborhoods have not had more than an hour of daily electricity for weeks, it almost certainly accounts for more.

The freelance power merchants also highlight the continuing failure of plans -- mostly bankrolled by Washington -- to restore many of Iraq's public services to even prewar levels.

"The government is not able and not serious enough to tackle the electricity problem, so we are likely to continue in this business for a long time," al-Obeidi said.

Power shortages in the capital have been a persistent complaint since the US-led invasion more than four years ago. But Baghdad residents say the problem has never been this bad -- not under crippling UN sanctions during deposed president Saddam Hussein's reign and not even during the opening rounds of the war in 2003.

Iraqi officials blame unrelenting insurgent attacks on electricity pylons, power stations, government workers and fuel deliveries for the near-collapse of the system.

"This blind terror is primarily responsible for what we have suffered in this vital sector," Adil Abdul-Mahdi, one of Iraq's two vice presidents, told a conference on electricity last week.

The US also blames corruption for the problems. An estimated US$2 billion has disappeared from funds to rebuild Iraq's electricity infrastructure.

Many people get by with personal generators, but rising fuel and maintenance costs have made running them prohibitive. Thousands -- possibly millions -- have plugged into the black market. So many, in fact, that those generators are churning out an estimated 2,000 megawatts of power, more than half as much as the government produces, a US report showed.

Many generators are set up in empty lots, on sidewalks or in yards, and their roar has become regular background noise across the capital.

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