BASRA, Iraq – Glistening in Iraq's barren southern salt plains, a natural gas-driven power station has come on line, generating sorely needed electricity for war-weary Iraqis and demonstrating that much-maligned U.S.-led reconstruction efforts are beginning to bear fruit.
U.S. officials said Sunday that increasing Iraq's electricity generating capacity through facilities such as the 250 megawatt electricity plant near the southern city of Basra is crucial to American efforts to encourage Iraqis to turn their backs on the insurgency.
Among the most infuriating problems for Iraqis nearly three years after the U.S.-led invasion remains the lack of regular electricity to run lights and home appliances, including air conditioners during Iraq's summer, when temperatures soar beyond 120 degrees.
Daniel Speckhard, who heads the U.S. reconstruction effort here, said Iraqis had expected instant results after the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime, which had allow the country's electricity-generating plants and national grid to deteriorate.
"They were hoping instantly to have the same kind of things we have in the United States, where you have 24 hours of power," Speckhard said. "What we are looking for by this coming summer is to get so the whole nation has roughly 12 hours of power, which is significantly better than where we have been."
Of 425 electricity-related projects, only 300 are expected to be completed before the $18.6 billion approved by Congress in November 2003 for reconstruction in Iraq runs out, U.S. officials have said.
Baghdad is among the country's worst off areas with most streets unlit at night and many of the capital's 7 million people relying on generators.
Iraqis living in Basra, the country's second-largest city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, have an average of 12 hours a day of power already, up from much lower prewar levels, as a result of the new plant.
The United States spent $123 million to install two 125 megawatt gas-generated turbines that were bought before the war under the U.N. Oil for Food program. The turbines began operating in late December at the site of a rusting Saddam-era power plant in Khor Az Zubayr, 20 miles south of Basra.
The plant is estimated to add electric power equivalent for what is needed for more than 220,000 households.
U.S. authorities have said maintenance of the plants was as important as installing new facilities so a major focus is on giving Iraqi employees proper training to keep them from feeding turbines with the wrong fuel, leading to breakdowns and lost generating capacity and other problems.
"I feel confident that the plant will be maintained when we leave. It doesn't take many people to operate and maintenance won't be nearly as much as the old facility was," said Robert Lee Cipsey, a construction representative for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who oversaw the project, which took one year to complete — six months ahead of schedule.
Col. Larry McCallister, the U.S. military official in charge of reconstruction projects in southern Iraq, said giving Iraqis more electricity was crucial to winning local support and defeating the insurgency.
McCallister acknowledged that insurgent attacks had reduced the number of projects he and other U.S. officials hoped to bring on line with the $18.4 billion of funds earmarked for reconstruction projects.
"We came here with a plan two years ago that we were going to do a lot of projects, but the insecurity increased and our priorities had to shift," McCallister said during a tour of the Khor Az Zubayr site. "We had to suspend some big water projects, but we have continued to push electricity."
Audit reports released recently by Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction found that guerrilla attacks have forced the cancellation of more than 60 percent of water and sanitation projects in Iraq, in part because American intelligence failed to predict the brutal insurgency.
Iraq's incessant insurgency absorbs as much as 22 percent of project costs, more than double the 9 percent originally budgeted.