Power Hogs Behind Some Iraq Transmission-Line Sabotage

Saboteurs who toppled 500 electric transmission towers across Iraq are not just looters or insurgents, but apparently also utility workers or others in outlying regions who want to deny power to Baghdad and keep it for themselves, U.S. and Iraqi engineers and officials report.

Provincial cities are turning the tables after years under Saddam Hussein when they were starved of power so the capital could burn watts around the clock, these sources say.

"I know that Karbala (search) and Hillah (search) toppled the towers so as not to share with others," said a leading Iraqi electrical engineer, Baghdad University's Nihad Mohammed al-Rawi, referring to two southern cities.

An Army Corps of Engineers task force from the United States is gathering this week in Baghdad to begin righting the downed pylons, among other urgent jobs in the campaign to restore Iraq's electrical system to what it was before the U.S.-British invasion in March.

The power shortages crippling Baghdad since the U.S. military seized the city in April are feeding anti-American feeling among its 5 million people, as the occupiers struggle to resurrect an outdated power grid damaged by war and by the sabotage that followed.

Restoring electricity carries the biggest price tag — $5.7 billion — of any program in President Bush's request to Congress for $20.3 billion next year for Iraq reconstruction.

National power output, slowly improving, was believed to have hit 4,000 megawatts this week, approaching the prewar peak of 4,400, said Andy Bearpark, director of operations and infrastructure for the occupation agency, the Coalition Provisional Authority. But engineers say Iraq needs at least 6,000 megawatts, and Baghdad itself is meeting barely half its need.

The felled towers and severed lines are routinely blamed by U.S. officials on die-hard pro-Saddam "dead-enders" or on looters seeking valuable copper wiring. But Bearpark agrees that other Iraqis, not politically or criminally motivated, are a third force of saboteurs.

"You are a disgruntled local resident who thinks, 'I have 24-hour power for the first time. Let me go and knock the tower down and be sure of it,'" he said in an interview at the authority's headquarters in Saddam's old Republican Palace.

It's impossible to determine how much damage each type of saboteur has done, the infrastructure chief said. "How do you prove what the reason is" for a particular downed tower? he asked.

He noted, however, that the southern city of Nasiriyah (search) "is receiving 24 hours of electricity, which is something it has never gotten before." Some southern cities had electric power only half the day in the past, when Saddam's regime neglected that Shiite Muslim region to solidify support in the capital and Iraq's surrounding Sunni Muslim heartland.

Army engineers and al-Rawi, head of Baghdad University's electrical engineering department, say they're certain local authorities brought down many towers.

"We have a control center in Baghdad and all power plants nationwide are feeding this center," al-Rawi said. "If you want to cut the connection from any power plant to the center, you must drop the tower." He said "there's no question" this is what's happening.

Capt. Christopher Korpela, 29, of Boulder, Colo., who has worked on Iraq projects for months, noted that only an estimated 100 towers were down right after the war, most apparently from U.S. bombing. "Now there are 600 towers down around the country," said the Army Reserve engineer, who believes those wanting to keep electricity in the provinces are a significant factor.

Of the falling towers, Maj. Edward C. Fort, 48, of Sciota, Ill., said, "We weren't able to keep up with it." He also noted that "Nasiriyah's got all the power."

The two officers, interviewed at Baghdad's al-Doura power plant, where they're helping oversee major rehabilitation, belong to the 439th Engineers Battalion, based in Bismarck, N.D.

The new task force, embarking on an intensive three-month campaign, will comprise up to 60 Army engineers, said Corps of Engineers spokeswoman Marilyn Phipps. It will be led by Brig. Gen. Steven Hawkins, commander of the corps region based in Cincinnati.

One of their prime tasks will be to deploy enough giant cranes to get towers upright and transmission lines restored. Protecting those lines will then be a top priority, Bearpark said, involving everything from aerial reconnaissance to village guards.

But ultimately, he said, a change in attitude is needed, a realization in Iraq's provinces that "longer term, and that may be only a few weeks away, you're destabilizing the entire transmission system, and that may mean you, too, may have some problems."