BAGHDAD (AP) – In the Baghdad suburb of Sadr City, there are glossy election campaign posters along with jungles of hanging …
BAGHDAD (AP) – In the suburb of Baghdad in Sadr City, there are glossy election campaign posters next to jungles of hanging electrical wires lying along the alley of Abu Ammar’s home.
But his mind is far from Iraq’s federal election on October 10. The 56-year-old retired soldier’s social benefits barely cover the cost of food and medicine, let alone electricity. Despite chronic interruptions from the national grid, Abu Ammar cannot afford a generator.
When the lights go out, he has no choice but to steal power from a neighbor’s line. He does not have the right political connections to get electricity otherwise, he says, a fragile figure sitting in a spartan living room.
In this country, if you do not have these contacts, “your situation will be like ours,” says Abu Ammar.
In Iraq, electricity is a powerful symbol of endemic corruption rooted in the country’s sectarian power-sharing system, which allows political elites to use protection networks to consolidate power. It is maintained after each election cycle: Once the results are calculated, the politicians jockeys after appointments in a bunch of negotiations based on the number of seats won. The ministry’s portfolios and state institutions are divided between them into control areas.
In the Ministry of Electricity, this system has enabled payments under the table to political elites who raise state funds from contracted companies to improve the provision of services.
The Associated Press spoke with a dozen former and current ministries and corporate entrepreneurs. They described tacit partnerships secured through intimidation and mutual benefit between the ministry’s political nominees, political parties and companies, and ensured that a percentage of these funds end up in the party coffers. Everyone spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals from political groups.
“Corruption arises as an individual act or of political interest,” said ministry spokesman Ahmed Mousa. “It’s happening everywhere in Iraq, not just the Ministry of Electricity.”
Meanwhile, the public is outraged that the prospect of electricity 24 hours a day in Iraq, a large oil-producing country with abundant energy resources, is a distant dream. Neighborhoods nationwide face daily interruptions – up to 14 hours in high summer in the poor southern provinces, where temperatures can reach 52 degrees Celsius (125 Fahrenheit).
It is a mystery that confuses energy experts.
“The technical solutions are clear and it will not happen. One has to ask why? Said Ali al-Saffar of the International Energy Agency.
In June, an Iraqi businessman received a call from the representative of the economic committee of the Sadrist movement led by Muqtada al-Sadr, a populist Shiite cleric with a cult-like supporter, whose party won the most seats in the 2018 election.
The representative, Abbas al-Kufi, wanted to see him. He had been informed that the businessman was meeting with Ministry of Electricity officials to discuss a multi-million dollar project to increase declining customs collection bills owed by consumers, which in Iraq is rarely paid.
At al-Kufi’s office, the businessman was instructed to deliver 15% of earnings in cash when the deal was signed and the ministry paid the invoices.
“He told me, ‘The Ministry of Electricity belongs to me, in my party,’ and I can do nothing without his approval,” the businessman recalled being told by al-Kufi, who has an unsurpassed influence cemented by the powerful Sadrist movement milits arm.
“They are not shy,” the businessman added. “They say to you, ‘If you do not follow us, we will harm you.'”
Al-Kufi, once a militia figure in the fight against the Islamic State group, is the latest example of the party’s economic representatives who have heavily armed companies over the years.
Through coordination between ministry loyalists, company officials and lawmakers, representatives like al-Kufi are appointed to ensure certain contracts are approved, a contractor of their choice is selected to execute them and a cut delivered to the party, according to officials from six companies involved since 2018 .
Al-Kufi was named in the local media in July when a letter allegedly written by former electricity minister Majid Hantoush accused him of undermining the ministry’s work. Hantoush, who later resigned, refused to write it.
Nassar Rubaie, leader of the political wing of the Sadrist movement, said his party served the electricity ministry because it won the most parliamentary seats in the 2018 election. With its high state budget, the ministry is among the most in demand. He confirmed that al-Kufi was a sadist figure, but denied the allegations against him or the movement, saying they constituted “slander”.
If there are documents proving the involvement of sadistic officials, he would personally see to it that they are prosecuted in a court of law, al-Rubaie added.
Only such paper tracks do not exist.
Contractors said intimidation is standard operating procedure in the Department of Electricity. An official from a major multinational company said he was ordered to subcontract to a local company solely when a package of deals worth billions was negotiated with the government.
“It was made clear to me, ‘Either you join us, or you get nothing in the end,'” he said.
To secure the funds for disbursement, more expensive materials are sometimes billed than what was actually purchased. An official estimated “billion” has been lost for these schemes since 2003, but exact figures are not available.
Officials questioning why contract prices are inflated are receiving warnings, including one protesting against a power plant in northern Salahaddin province that was overvalued by $ 600 million. He got a call when it became clear he would not sign the deal, he said.
Be careful, he was told.
Every electricity minister since the US-led invasion in 2003 that overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein has faced this frightening equation: Iraq should be able to produce over 30,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to meet current demand, but only about half of it reaches consumers.
Poor infrastructure, inappropriate fuel and theft account for 40% -60% of the losses, among the highest rates in the world. In the poorer south, heat, urban sprawl and illegal housing are putting even more pressure on the aging network.
Revenue collections are abysmal and grants astronomical. The ministry collects less than 10% of what it needs in bills. In December, a parliamentary committee reported that $ 81 billion had been spent on the electricity sector since 2005, but disruptions were still the norm.
It is partly the fault of politically appointed officials, especially directors-general of central departments, who have the greatest influence in the ministry and are empowered to facilitate contract fraud, according to six former and current officials. The post-election negotiations in 2018 involved at least 500 such positions. The Sadrist movement got the most – 200.
The future is bleak.
Demand has doubled by 2030, with Iraq’s population growing by 1 million a year. The International Energy Agency estimates that by failing to develop its electricity sector, Iraq has lost $ 120 billion between 2014-2020 in jobs and industrial growth due to insufficient demand.
A HIGH PRICE
A hidden price for Iraq’s elements of power: Insomnia.
Uday Ibrahim Ali, a generator repairman, is routinely waking up to urgent corrections in Basra’s Zubair neighborhood. His clients beg him: They have children struggling to sleep in the suffocating heat. Can I ignore them? I can not do that, ”he says.
In the summer of 2018, poor electricity service caused protests in Basra, leaving at least 15 dead. A year later, mass protests paralyzed Baghdad and southern Iraq as tens of thousands rejected the rampant corruption that has plagued service delivery.
Independent candidates from the protest movement in Basra prioritize electricity as they prepare for the election. As temperatures drop in September, power outages are less frequent. To avoid pre-election protests, Iraqi officials also improved distribution.
In Baghdad, Sadr City is at the forefront of the electricity crisis. Al-Sadr’s portrait is a bastion of the Sadrist movement and hangs in almost every home.
Publicly, his movement supports a reformist agenda. Meanwhile, disillusioned Iraqis are calling for a boycott of the election. Expected low turnout will guarantee grassroots movements as the sadists win a large share of seats.
It is because of loyalists like Mahdi Mohammed.
When the light goes out, the 60-year-old asthmatic douses himself with water and hisses in the dark, barely able to breathe. The parties that came before the Sadrist movement are to blame, he says, adding that he will vote for a sadrist candidate.
He has more to say, but at that moment the electricity returns, lights are turned on and a gust of cool air hits him. He closes his eyes and looks up at the sky.
“Welcome, welcome,” he shouts.
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