In Iraq Chaos, Uphill Struggle to Bring Power

By JAMES GLANZ

New York Times

October 16, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Oct. 16 - Call it the Iraqi version of the tortoise and the hare.

On a six-day journey this week, more than 500 tons of house-size components on their way to the capital crept across Al Anbar Province, a grimy and murderous border region, at the white-knuckle pace of 10 to 15 miles an hour. Protected by an armada of helicopters, Bradley tanks, Humvees and bulletproof Land Cruisers, the convoy looked like the makings of some kind of space program, but in fact it carried sections of an enormous generator, financed by American taxpayers, to upgrade the Iraqi power grid. In operations like this, Iraq's physical reconstruction inches forward.

But lined up against the reconstruction effort is the danger that strikes with seemingly inescapable suddenness all over Iraq: in one recent example involving a similar convoy, two Jordanian drivers working for the company whose trucks move the generators were gunned down.

Pressure is increasing on the Bush administration to show that the rebuilding effort will win this race, and that some of the many projects that have been delayed or temporarily abandoned will soon improve the lives of Iraqis, giving them a reason to trust the government and reject the anarchy of the insurgency.

More than any other sector of the infrastructure, it is the electrical grid that fills officials with hope. True, virtually every project is behind schedule, and few goals have been met. Indeed, officials involved with reconstruction expend great effort revising the overly optimistic projections made by the American occupation authorities in previous months. But there are, finally, more megawatts on the grid than before the invasion, and with a number of big projects under way behind the scenes, officials say it is just the start.

"We're getting the crisis back under control," said Simon Stolp, the program manager for electricity at the Project and Contracting Office, which is managing billions of dollars of Congressionally mandated reconstruction money. "There are a whole basket of positive things to be seen," he said.

The grid had been deteriorating under the pressure of sanctions and neglect ever since it was put back together after American bombers destroyed it in 1991, but Mr. Stolp said those problems were quickly becoming a thing of the past.

"There will be more megawatts on the grid next summer than there have been at any period of time since the gulf war," Mr. Stolp said.

Iraqi electricity experts are less impressed. Saad Shakir Tawfiq, a scientist who leads Iraqi teams working at several power plants, said he was surprised that his relatively upscale Baghdad neighborhood was still subjected to regular blackouts, two hours off, and four hours on.

"It's the time of year when everybody switches off air-conditioners, and nobody uses heaters," Dr. Tawfiq said. "There should be a surplus."

But Mr. Stolp said that Iraqis, with their newfound freedom, were buying more and more electrical appliances and sapping the network, and even Dr. Tawfiq conceded that it could take a while for the big generation projects to get more electricity into the homes of Iraqis.

The 340-mile journey the generator convoy took from Jordan, which a reporter joined for the final 75 miles, showed how determined the Americans are to push ahead with big electricity projects.

The mission passed within a few miles of the insurgent strongholds of Ramadi and Falluja before the convoy of 42 vehicles reached Baghdad, snaking its way through the city's edgy streets in the dead of night. Workers climbed ladders to snip overhead power lines that were in the way, bulldozed obstacles on the ground and fixed a tank that had broken down in the convoy's path.

Gunshots rang out repeatedly, although most of them came from American soldiers firing into the air to keep traffic back.

"This is one of those you'll-never-get-it-done tasks," said John Yourston, a former member of the British special forces and now the operations director in Iraq for Olive Security, a private company that directed the journey, from scouting out the route to positioning the tanks traveling in the convoy.

The military's shorthand for the mission was MOAG, for Mother of All Generators. "It's a monster, isn't it?" Mr. Yourston said.

The MOAG, along with a giant gas turbine to power it and two other huge truckloads of equipment, arrived intact at a south Baghdad power plant at first light on Wednesday morning, two days before the start of Ramadan.

The generator is one of a pair manufactured by General Electric that are now set to be installed at the south Baghdad plant as part of a project to add more than 200 megawatts to the grid. That would more than double the current output of the ancient steam turbines at the plant and contribute substantially to the roughly 5,000 megawatts that the entire country is producing at the moment, said Abdul Hassan Qasim, the plant's director.

"What is produced by this turbine," Mr. Qasim said of the latest delivery, "is essential to Baghdad, because it is in the heart of Baghdad."

So the juice will go right to power-starved consumers without being dissipated in long transmission lines, he said. David DeVoss, a spokesman for the United States Agency for International Development, which is administering the financing, said the estimated cost for the project was $162 million. Bechtel, the international engineering and construction giant, manages the work for the agency.

Originally scheduled to be producing electricity by December, the generators are not expected to be ready until June. The pace slowed and security costs soared after the insurgency broke out across the country in April. Two months later, three General Electric employees were killed by a suicide bomber while riding in a convoy in Baghdad.

Now the work site, which employs some 260 Iraqis, resembles Fort Knox, as one Bechtel employee put it. (Fearing reprisals, the company asked that none of its employees be named, and that no photographs showing landmarks around the compound be taken.) The site is surrounded by high concrete blast walls, and there is a bunkerlike inner perimeter where project managers work.

Whenever a Westerner ventures from the inner perimeter and mingles with the Iraqi workers, he is accompanied by rifle-toting guards from ArmorGroup, another private security company. In addition, the site is protected by about 80 of the Nepalese guards known as Ghurkas. There are guard towers, checkpoints and sandbagged refuges for protection in case of a mortar attack.

Like the Western managers and engineers, all of the security personnel must be fed and housed at the site. "Security threw this project all out of whack," said a Bechtel official working inside the compound. "There's no telling what it's going to cost." He cautioned, however, that not all of the cost increases could be attributed to security. Officials involved with the reconstruction say they are in negotiations with General Electric over cost increases.

Mr. DeVoss said he had no information on how much of the contract would be eaten up by security, but other officials say the proportion has risen to 30 percent and higher on similar projects.

Still, it seems unlikely that an exact reckoning of security costs for the MOAG will ever be made. At various times the convoy was protected by the Army's First Cavalry Division; the Second Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment; and at least three other military units. Capt. Charley Von Bergen of the Marines guessed that 500 soldiers had been involved in one way or another, but he conceded that there was no solid estimate. Through it all, the MOAG kept rolling along, stenciled along its bottom edge with the word "fragile" and the universal sign for equipment that is easily damaged - a wineglass.