Keeping the Lights on in Baghdad: An Interview with Harry Istepanian

Little did the Americans know, US tax dollars would one day be put towards rebuilding this infrastructure, as Dick Cheney said of the Gulf War in 1994, occupying Iraq in 1991 would have been a mistake.Instead, the policy to restrain Saddam’s WMD ambitions and other excesses was the continuation of the heavily punitive sanctions. One sector where it was particularly hard to procure spare parts was electricity.

By the Summer of 1991, 12 hour blackouts had become a regular fixture in Baghdad, but through a gargantuan effort supply was eventually able to meet demand, if only across most of urban Iraq. Saddam was ensuring that areas that did not rebel in 1991 would be rewarded, and regular electricity was one such “reward.” Rural areas often went without, a stark change from the early 1980s.

By the end of the 1990s, the outdated and only partially repaired national grid was producing under half of what it had done before the 1991 war, some 4000 MW. UN staff in Iraq reported that some replacement parts in the battered power stations were hard to get hold of, not only because of sanctions but because they were simply no longer produced. Hans Von Sponeck, one former UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq recalled visiting the Al Taji power station (pictured-- as it is today) one of the major suppliers of Baghdad, in late 1998. He recalled of the time,

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