Iraq minister outlines problems behind electricity woes

BAGHDAD -- Iraq's electricity minister outlined to parliament Saturday a slew of problems that have contributed to abysmal power services, which have sparked widespread public anger and protests. Qassem al-Fahdawi, who was being quizzed in parliament on Iraq's electricity woes since he took office last year, criticized his predecessors for "focusing almost exclusively on production" at the expense of developing the distribution network to raise output. The main example was Baghdad, he said, where the grid's capacity was a maximum of 3,500 megawatts, regardless of production levels. He reported a major production shortfall throughout Iraq, with demand this summer reaching 21,000 megawatts while output was only 13,400. Among a host of other problems were a major funding shortfall, more than 40,000 non-essential employees and a fuel shortage for gas-powered plants.
Security is also an issue, with electricity infrastructure exposed to attacks by militants.

Fahdawi said the ministry has prepared various short-term plans to address the electricity problems, especially in Baghdad.

"But that requires concerted efforts by the entire state and not just the ministry," he said.

Following Fahdawi's remarks and a subsequent vote, parliament speaker Salim al-Juburi announced that the minister's answers had been satisfactory and the matter was closed.

Juburi had threatened Fahdawi with a no-confidence vote if he did not appear by Saturday.

The minister said during the session that his delay in doing so was due to him needing more time to prepare answers to parliament's questions.

Amid a major heat wave that has seen temperatures top 50 degrees Celsius, thousands of people have protested in Baghdad and cities in the Shiite south to vent their anger and pressure the authorities to make changes.

They have railed against the poor quality of services, as power cuts leave just a few hours of government-supplied electricity a day during the scorching summer heat.

Their demands were given a boost when top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on Aug. 7 for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to take "drastic measures" against corruption.

Parliament has signed off on a reform plan proposed by Abadi as well as additional measures, and the prime minister has begun issuing orders for changes, including cutting 11 cabinet posts and slashing the bloated number of guards for officials.

But even with popular support and backing from Sistani, the fact that parties across Iraq's political spectrum benefit from graft is a major obstacle to the nascent reform effort.