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

“The electricity situation was catastrophic for the country as a whole. Power cuts across central and southern Iraq during November 1998 to May 1999 involved and average of 10-12 hours. Across Iraqi Kurdistan it was worse.”

Von Sponeck noted that Al Taji looked “like a heap of scrap metal” and that workers operated in extremely dangerous conditions. Even with an amendment to sanctions, the “Oil for Food” program, only $300 million was available to upgrade the grid. UN official Denis Halliday noted at the time, to fully repair the sector would require around $10 billion. Things got worse for sector in 2003.

Following the coalition invasion, a wave of mass looting swept Iraq--in part an outpouring of rage against the regime driven by the pent up emotion of decades of oppression and in part driven by opportunists, including some 40,000 inmates Saddam had released from Abu Ghraib prison (the full total of released prisoners may have been 75,000).

The electrical grid became a casualty, with some reports indicating the extent of theft of copper wiring was such that the regional price of copper actually dropped. Within a month, electricity supply was just 711 MW, rising to 1275 by April, a small achievement for the short lived and hopelessly under resourced Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs. Before long, a vicious cycle began where Iraq could not keep oil refineries running due to insufficient power, meaning Iraqis relied on expensive refined fuel imports to power portable electric generators.

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