Militias Seizing Control of Iraqi
By JAMES GLANZ and STEPHEN FARRELL
Published: August 23, 2007
BAGHDAD, Aug. 22 — Armed groups increasingly control
the antiquated switching stations that channel
electricity around Iraq, the electricity minister
That is dividing the national grid into fiefs that,
he said, often refuse to share electricity generated
locally with Baghdad and other power-starved areas
in the center of Iraq.
The development adds to existing electricity
problems in Baghdad, which has been struggling to
provide power for more than a few hours a day
because insurgents regularly blow up the towers that
carry power lines into the city.
The government lost the ability to control the grid
centrally after the American-led invasion in 2003,
when looters destroyed electrical dispatch centers,
the minister, Karim Wahid, said in a news briefing
attended also by United States military officials.
The briefing had been intended, in part, to
highlight successes in the American-financed
reconstruction program here.
But it took an unexpected turn when Mr. Wahid, a
highly respected technocrat and longtime ministry
official, began taking questions from Arab and
Because of the lack of functioning dispatch centers,
Mr. Wahid said, ministry officials have been trying
to control the flow of electricity from huge power
plants in the south, north and west by calling local
officials there and ordering them to physically flip
But the officials refuse to follow those orders when
the armed groups threaten their lives, he said, and
the often isolated stations are abandoned at night
and easily manipulated by whatever group controls
This kind of manipulation can cause the entire
system to collapse and bring nationwide blackouts,
sometimes seriously damaging the generating plants
that the United States has paid millions of dollars
Such a collapse took place just last week, the State
Department reported in a recent assessment, which
said the provinces’ failure to share electricity
resulted in a “massive loss of power” on Aug. 14 at
It added that “all Baghdad generation and 60 percent
of national generation was temporarily lost.” By
midnight, half the lost power had been restored, the
With summer temperatures routinely exceeding 110
degrees, and demand soaring for air-conditioners and
refrigerators, those blackouts deeply undermine an
Iraqi government whose popular support is already
In some cases, Mr. Wahid and other Iraqi officials
say, insurgents cut power to the capital as part of
their effort to topple the government.
But the officials said it was clear that in other
cases, local militias, gangs and even some
provincial military and civilian officials held on
to the power simply to help their own areas.
With the manual switching system in place, there is
little that the central government can do about it,
Mr. Wahid said.
“We are working in this primitive way for
controlling and distributing electricity,” he said.
Mr. Wahid said the country’s power plants were not
designed to supply electricity to specific cities or
provinces. “We have a national grid,” he said.
He cited Mosul and Baquba, in the north, and Basra,
in the south, as being among the cities refusing to
route electricity elsewhere. “This greatly
influenced the distribution of power throughout
Iraq,” Mr. Wahid complained.
At times the hoarding of power provides cities
around power plants with 24 hours of uninterrupted
electricity, a luxury that is unheard of in Baghdad,
where residents say they generally get two to six
hours of power a day.
Mr. Wahid said Baghdad was suffering mainly because
the provinces were holding onto the electricity, but
he said shortages of fuel and insurgents’ strikes on
gas and oil pipelines also contributed to the anemic
output in the capital.
Although a refusal by provincial governments to
provide their full quotas to Baghdad could easily be
seen as greedy when electricity is in such short
supply, many citizens near the power plants regard
the new reality as only fair; under Saddam Hussein,
the capital enjoyed nearly 24 hours a day of power
at the expense of the provinces that are now flush
Keeping electricity for the provinces, said Mohammed
al-Abbasi, a journalist in Hilla, in the south, “is
a reaction against the capital, Baghdad, as power
was provided to it without any cuts during the
Other Iraqis are just grateful for anything that
brings more comfort to their families and
“We support any step that provides us with power,”
said Ahmed Abdul Hussein, an ironsmith in Najaf, in
The precision with which militias control
electricity in the provinces became apparent in
Basra on May 25 when Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army
carried out a sustained attack against a small
British-Iraqi base in the city center, and turned
that control to tactical military advantage.
“The lights in the city were going on and off all
over,” said Cpl. Daniel Jennings, 26, one of the
British defenders who fought off the attack.
“They were really controlling the whole area,
turning the lights on and off at will. They would
shut down one area of the city, turn it dark, attack
us from there, and then switch off another one and
come at us from that direction.
“What they did was very well planned.”
The electricity briefing began with Brig. Gen.
Michael J. Walsh, commanding general of the Gulf
Region Division of the Army Corps of Engineers,
saying the United States had finished more than 80
percent of the projects it planned for
rehabilitating the Iraqi grid.
He said that even though Baghdad now got no power
from either the south or north, about a third of its
electricity was still supplied by the national grid.
But General Walsh said he knew people in Baghdad
were far from satisfied.
“I understand people’s impatience,” he said.
“Certainly when you flip the light switch and
nothing happens, you can get angry.”
Damien Cave contributed reporting from Baghdad, and
Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Baghdad,
Basra, Najaf, Hilla and Karbala.