In the searing heat of the Iraqi summer, the difficulty of life with virtually no electricity is hard to comprehend.
But overlay it with the physical and spiritual challenges of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, and the big cities become time
bombs ticking at the feet of government.
Or they would, if there was a government. For seven months the country has been paralysed by the failure of the political parties to
agree on the make-up of a new government after national elections in mid-March. So with nobody in charge in Baghdad, Iraqis
vent their spleen on the streets – being doused by water cannon or arrested and, in some cases, shot by the police.
Summer in Baghdad is not just a hot spell. Day after grinding day and for weeks at a stretch, the temperatures reach anywhere
between 46 and 49 degrees. Airconditioning fails. Elevators stop working. Life, seriously, is a bitch.In the capital, power allocations
can be as mingy as two hours a day.
In August, flashlights were produced on the bench of the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court, so judges could read case documents when a
mechanical glitch in the court's back-up generator collided with a regular failure in the national power grid. Acting Electricity
Minister Hussain al-Shahristani was embarrassed when the lights went out during a fast-breaking Iftar dinner which he hosted for
the Baghdad media last month.
Despite floating on oil and gas, this is a country whose decrepit refineries can produce just a fraction of the refined fuels it needs. So
when temperatures rise there is a greater shortage of petrol – because there is even greater demand for the private generators that
households fall back on.
Enterprising Baghdadis set themselves up as mini-moguls, buying big generators and selling power to hundreds of their neighbours
– thereby festooning the streets with a spaghetti-mess of feed lines.
Everything about the life of Ishmael Mohammed Hussein marks him as a supporter of the ascendant Shiite political classes in post-
Saddam Iraq. But just mention the names of the big politicians and his white moustache bristles in disgust.
As a member of the Dawa Party of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki he bridles at the mention of today's incarnation of the old
resistance movement: "Ha! They just work for the money for themselves, not for the people. They hold us up against the wall" – and
here he mimics a gun-toting gangster – "while they buy themselves villas in other countries."
As head of one of about 70 families who are squatters in what was a government office block on the banks of the Tigris River,
Hussein wallows in pessimism."Today's Baghdad is such a miserable place," he says. "We hoped on getting rid of Saddam that we
would have wealth and happiness, but most of the people in power have come from outside the country and they think only of
His 56-year-old wife Zaheda Saleh agrees: "Iraq is like a milking cow and these people steal all the milk." The family has been
squatting on Baghdad's fabled Abu Nuwas Street since they fled from the southern city of Nasiriyah in 2003. They are on the
seventh floor, where the static lift-wells mock efforts to plan their days around as few journeys as possible up and down the dark,
Water and other weighty supplies are hauled up and over the balcony on ropes. Across the flaccid waters of the Tigris, is the seat of
power in Baghdad – the deposed and dead Saddam Hussein's presidential compound which under the US occupation became the
Green Zone and which is now the fortified home of the Iraqi government.
Salem's and Husseins' story is numbingly typical of today's Baghdad.They are devout Shiites. He served in Saddam's military for 30
years – during which he was jailed three times for opposing the old regime. They fled the south of the country, hoping to find a
better life in the capital; apart from his small pension, the family's only income in recent years has been that earned by one of his sons who worked for a now-defunct American security firm.
Their lodgings have the same monotony. Intended for government pen-pushers, this is a spartan space in which there has been no glass in the windows since all were smashed by the reverberations from a powerful suicide-bomb attack on the nearby Palestine Hotel in January.
"We get about two hours' electricity a day from the national grid and then we pay $US100 per month to the owner of a generator locally who has strung a wire into our home," Hussein says. "Only the minister's have national power – they have elevators, but the rest of the country must walk up the stairs."
But from the confines of his own misery, Hussein tries to discern the contours of Iraq's future – what he can see is not pretty."You should not think that Iraq will be stabilised," he says. "Yes, there will be more fighting and it will be worse than what we have seen in the past. There is no reason why this country should not be one of the top 20 economies in the world – but we are still oppressed and this makes us very angry."
A television in the corner hums Ramadan prayers and finally images of a cannon blast signal the precise moment at which the faithful can break the day-long fast. Anticipating the cannon shot the family has spread plastic mats on the floor and then laid out their Iftar meal – grapes and dates, plates of rice and a stew in which there are just a few pieces of chicken.
Just as there is a ragged roughness about the man of this house, there is a graceful elegance about his wife who, on the firing of the Iftar cannon, resorts to an indulgence that few Iraqi women reveal to foreigners – she produces a long, slender cigarette and proceeds to smoke it with great satisfaction.
They eat in silence and then the wife offers this, almost as an apology: "The stairs make me very skinny." And then she offers her pithy political analysis of today's Iraq: "The political parties have started to eat each other."
This squatter couple might be dismissed as not necessarily representative of Iraqi public opinion. But according to a Baghdad-based diplomat, there has been a "steady deterioration" in the ordinary Iraqi's sense of abandonment.
"The politicians just look after themselves, failing at the same time to make agreements or decisions that might be in the interests of their people," he told The Sun-Herald. "And the people will become more disenchanted – wouldn't you if you got just three hours' power a day at the same time as you knew that chronic corruption extended to the top of government?"
The family's pain is felt acutely by the fresh-faced Sinan Taha, a 27-year-old Baghdadi who was still an engineering student when US-led forces invaded Iraq in 2003, but who now can be found in the office of the duty engineer at the Dora power station.
Set in a maze of checkpoints and palm plantations on the southern fringe of the capital, Dora is a museum of technological antiquity.Belching, blasting and leaking, it is so decrepit and so in need of maintenance and renewal it cannot operate at even half its designed capacity. When Taha's colleagues call for replacement parts for the giant machines, they have to craft them themselves.
Dora's output of just 300 megawatt of power, compared with a design capacity of 640MW, is a revelation of the failure in much of Washington's investment of more than $US4.5 billion in restoring power to Iraq.
Within days of the ousting of Saddam Hussein in 2003, a senior American officer predicted to reporters in Baghdad that "we'll have power rolling in 48 hours." More than seven years later, output is up just 50 per cent on the 4000MW production of the Saddam era – but still way below the voracious demand at the height of this year's broiling summer – 13000MW.
Throw any question on the power crisis to the engineer Sinan Taha and he starts with the same words – "the reasons are many." He begins with the example he knows best – Dora. The last time any of his huge generators were overhauled was in 1989.
An Italian turbine installed as Iraq was emerging from its war with Iran is still referred to as the "new" turbine. And inventive though it might have been, crude efforts to fire generators that were intended to run on gas on diesel has further damaged machines for which Iraq has been unable to get spare parts – either because of international sanctions under Saddam or because of bureaucratic or budgetary incompetence since the fall of Saddam.
More recently, the American and Iraqi efforts to get the work done were bedeviled by corruption and the specialist international engineering firms that might do the work were beset by contractual and security problems.
Taha belittles his likely foreign saviours like many of the locals who have lived through the worst of the Saddam years – the botched US occupation and the birth pangs of what Washington still prays will prove to be a be genuine Middle Eastern democracy.
"Many of them are too scared to come here," he laughs, referring to insurgency violence in which hundreds of Iraqis still die each month. "The Americans would pay for 30 guards to look after a single engineer. But the engineers we get from Russia and from other countries don't need 30 guards – the Russians who are here now don't have any guards."
The view from Washington is a little different. An investigation by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction laid the blame for failure at Dora on the Iraqi Electricity Ministry, which it said had managed neither the operation nor maintenance of almost $US200 million effort to turn the station around.
The inspector's 2007 report said a steam turbine had been rebuilt but not used for more than a year. Another had suffered "catastrophic failure" in 2006 and again the next year. In the report, inspectors said they found the turbine that failed twice also shut down more than 100 times in a year because repeated power surges flipped off circuit-breakers. Generators were overloaded. There was no maintenance performed on machines. Filters were clogged with debris and parts were not lubricated, making them unusable. Insulators were damaged by bullets and shrapnel.
Officials said they were "at times surprised that Iraqi maintainers could keep the plant running in its current state of disrepair." Baghdad's chief energy adviser Thamir Ghadhban attempts the splits on the electricity crisis.Interviewed during the draining double whammy of Ramadan in summer, he acknowledged popular contempt for people such as himself, but at the same time he pleaded for understanding and patience.
"Demand for power has almost doubled, it increases at 10 per cent a year," he says. "Hopefully by January next year we will have let five or maybe seven new contracts to build an extra 750MW to 1000MW generating capacity and the government is committed to adding 10,000MW in the next 10 years."Inevitably, such grand statements precede a "but". In this case, the "but" is cold comfort for Iraqis suffering a hot summer.
"We'll need at least five years of hard work to bridge the gap between supply and demand," Ghadhban says."The last few years have been difficult, but maybe by 2016 there will be enough supply."Conscious of popular impatience, Ghadhban, who is a former oil minister, acknowledges the political consequences of continued failure.
"It is unfair that the people of this country continue to suffer with all the wealth that is available . . . and I don't want to say 'let the people wait', but we all have to wait. We have to look at this objectively – there's a risk that the people will turn angry and violent."If people are angry and subjected to blackouts and they don't feel secure and there is no sense of equal opportunity, then of course they will say 'bring back Saddam Hussein'
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U.S Allies Rejoin Rebels
Members of United States-allied Awakening Councils have quit or been dismissed from their positions in significant numbers in recent months, prey to an intensive recruitment campaign to rejoin the Sunni insurgency, according to government officials, current and former members of the Awakening and insurgents.
Although there are no firm figures, security and political officials say hundreds of the well-disciplined fighters — many of whom have gained extensive knowledge about the American military — appear to have returned to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Beyond that, officials say that even many of the Awakening fighters still on the government payroll, possibly thousands of them, covertly aid the insurgency.
The defections have accelerated since Iraq’s inconclusive parliamentary elections in March, which left Sunnis uncertain of retaining what little political influence they have with the Shiite-led government and appear to have provided Al Qaeda new recruitment opportunities.The loss of the Awakening members poses a new threat to Iraq’s tenuous social and political balance during the country’s ongoing political crisis and as the United States military prepares to withdraw next year.
“The Awakening doesn’t know what the future holds because it is not clear what the government intends for them,” said Nathum al-Jubouri, a former Awakening Council leader in Salahuddin Province who recently quit the organization.“At this point, Awakening members have two options: Stay with the government, which would be a threat to their lives, or help Al Qaeda by being a double agent,” he said. “The Awakening is like a database for Al Qaeda that can be used to target places that had been out of reach before.”
The Awakening began in 2006, when Sunni insurgents and tribal leaders began turning against Al Qaeda and other extremists, and its support for the government proved pivotal in pulling Iraq back from deadly sectarian warfare. They were initially paid by the American military, with promises that they would eventually be given jobs with the central government.
But Awakening leaders and security officials say that since the spring, as many as several thousand Awakening fighters have quit, been fired, stopped showing up for duty, or ceased picking up paychecks.During the past four months, the atmosphere has become particularly charged as the Awakening members find themselves squeezed between Iraqi security forces, who have arrested hundreds of current and former members accused of acts of recent terrorism, and Al Qaeda’s brutal recruitment techniques.
As part of the militants’ unusual, though often convincing strategy, Awakening members that Al Qaeda fails to kill are then sought out to rejoin the insurgency. They are offered larger paychecks than their $300 a month government pay and told that they would be far safer.The government, which says it is trying to integrate the Awakening into broader Iraqi society, has further angered the group recently by confiscating its weapons, saying Awakening fighters lack proper permits, and stripping some fighters of their ranks, which the government says were not properly earned. The pay of some Awakening leaders has also been reduced.
Iraqi officials in Baghdad say they are aware of only a handful of Awakening fighters who have quit recently and are unapologetic about the government’s treatment of the Awakening. “Fighting the Al Qaeda organization does not mean you are giving service to the government or to the people, and that you deserve gifts, rank, presents or benefits,” said Zuhair al-Chalabi, head of the National Reconciliation Committee. “It is a national duty.”The Awakening has long complained about Iraq’s reluctance to hire more of its members into the Army and police, and about receiving salaries late. Those problems persist, they say.
As of July, less than half — 41,000 of 94,000 — of the Awakening’s fighters had been offered jobs by the government, according to the United States Defense Department. Much of the employment has been temporary and involved menial labor. Only about 9,000 have jobs with security forces.Leaders of the Awakening, who so far do not appear to be among those leaving, say they are not surprised about the defections given what they call the group’s marginalization by the government and its abandonment by the American military.
United States forces had overseen the Awakening in some areas of the country as recently as last year, including in Diyala Province, a violent area northeast of Baghdad. The United States relinquished control of the group as it began ceding more oversight of security to the Iraqi government. The American military declined to comment on the Awakening’s troubles, writing in an email that it was unable to provide a “releasable response.”
One Awakening leader in Diyala, Bakr Karkhi, said during an interview that nearly two dozen of his fighters had rejoined Al Qaeda during the past few weeks, a process he said had been occurring throughout Sunni areas of Iraq. Other fighters, he said, had abruptly stopped reporting for duty. “I became suspicious when some of them started making questionable comments, so I expelled them,” he said. “Others left the Awakening on their own and then disappeared from their villages. We found out they were conducting illegal operations and cooperating with armed groups, including Al Qaeda.”
Awakening fighters say recent entreaties by Al Qaeda — messages that have been passed along by relatives or posted on Internet Web sites — have included pledges not to disrupt tribal traditions, one of the issues that drove a wedge between the majority of Sunni tribes and the insurgency.A man who identified himself to a local reporter as a member of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia said recently that the recruitment of disaffected Awakening members had been successful in Baquba, the capital of Diyala.
“Many of those who called themselves the Awakening felt remorse,” said the man, who used the nom de guerre, Abu Mohammed al-Daeni. “They believed they were making a mistake by helping the occupiers and have now returned to Al Qaeda. I can say that the number is increasing every day and has reached the dozens in Baquba alone.”
Diyala has also witnessed a number of incidents in which police say Awakening fighters have helped Al Qaeda detonate bombs and commit other violent acts.“The Awakening is not helping the police,” said Lt. Gen. Tariq al-Assawi, the province’s security forces commander. “They are not telling us if Al Qaeda is in the area. They are not warning us about car bombs that go off in places they are responsible for securing. A lot of them are definitely helping the insurgents.”Muthana al-Tamimi, head of the provincial council’s security committee, said Awakening members were clearly returning to the insurgency, but that Baghdad should share the blame.“The Awakening needs government support,” he said. “They’re not getting it, so they’re an easy bite for terrorists.”
Since January, more than 90 Awakening fighters in Diyala have been arrested on suspicion of terrorism, the authorities said. During that same period, about 100 Awakening members have been killed or wounded by Al Qaeda, according to the Awakening. Bolstering the Awakening’s claims of harassment, the police acknowledge that almost half of those arrested were later released for lack of evidence.Al Qaeda’s carrot-or-stick strategy with the Awakening was on display during a recent phone call received by Hussam al-Majmaei, the Awakening leader in Diyala Province.The caller was Jihad Ibrahim Halim, who had been a Qaeda commander before his arrest last year. He was calling from prison.
Mr. Halim, who is Mr. Majmaei’s cousin, told him that for his own good he should rejoin the insurgency because Al Qaeda would slaughter those who had opposed them, Mr. Majmaei included. Mr. Majmaei, 27, chuckled and made his own threats before hanging up. The call, he said, was part of an ongoing “seduction.”So far, Mr. Majmaei said he had not been swayed by Al Qaeda’s promises of money and power.“I would never join them,” he said. “But they have no doubts. They believe in what they are saying and I see how others might bend.”
Reporting was contributed by Yasir Ghazi from Baghdad, and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Baghdad, Diyala, Salahuddin, Kirkuk, Babil and Anbar Provinces.
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This Waste Really Hurts
As this is something I have written on previously it seems appropriate to note that today the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report on open-air burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq
U.S. forces generate a lot of waste. According to the GAO U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq generate about 10 pounds of waste per servicemember each day. This waste may consist of plastic, styrofoam, and food from dining facilities; discarded electronics; shipping materials such as wooden pallets and plastic wrap; appliances; and other items such as mattresses, clothing, tires, metal containers, and furniture.
Assuming 50,000 troops in Iraq that is half a million pounds of waste a day. In Afghanistan it is nearly a million pounds a day. That doesn't count waste produced by contractors or other DOD components. It also doesn't include hazardous or medical waste. No matter how you look at it that is one heck of a log of garbage to burn.Lawsuits have been filed in federal court in at least 43 states in which current and former service members have alleged, among other things, that a contractor's negligent management of burn pit operations, contrary to applicable contract provisions, exposed them to air pollutants that subsequently caused serious health problems.
The contractor, KBR, has moved to dismiss the suits, arguing, among other things, that it cannot be held liable for any injuries that may have occurred to service personnel because its burn pit activities occurred at the direction of the military.GAO took no view in this report on any issue in this pending litigation involving burn pits. Nor did it evaluate whether the contractor has complied with the terms of its contract with respect to burn pit operations.
Still, the report DOD Should Improve Adherence to Its Guidance on Open Pit Burning and Solid Waste Management has some useful nuggets regarding contractor operation of the pits.
Regarding how the process works:
Typically, contractors such as KBR, DynCorp, and Fluor work under task orders. The task order process begins when a military customer, such as a commander in Afghanistan or Iraq, identifies a need, such as assistance in managing a burn pit. This need is documented in a task order statement of work, which establishes the specific tasks for the contractor, and the time frames for performance.
In the case of contracting for burn pit support, the customer contacts its contract program management office (the contract office), which obtains a cost estimate from a contractor and provides the cost information to the customer. If the customer decides to use the contractor's services, the contract office obtains funding and finalizes the statement of work, and the contracting officer issues the task order and a notice to begin work. If the customer identifies a change in need, the process begins anew.
Additionally, the military services, as well as DCMA, perform contract management functions to ensure the government receives quality services from contractors at the best possible prices. Customers identify and validate the requirements to be addressed and evaluate the contractor's performance, and ensure that the contract is used in economical and efficient ways. The contracting officer is responsible for providing oversight and management of the contract. The contracting officer may delegate some oversight and management functions to DCMA, which may then assign administrative contracting officers to (1) provide on-site contract administration at deployed locations, and (2) to monitor contractor performance and management systems to ensure that the cost, product performance, and delivery schedules comply with the terms and conditions of the contract.
DCMA administrative contracting officers may have limited knowledge of field operations. In these situations, DCMA normally uses contracting officers' technical representatives who have been designated by their unit and appointed and trained by the administrative contracting officer. They provide technical oversight of the contractor's performance, but they cannot direct the contractor by making commitments or changes that affect any terms of the contract.
GOA notes that DOD bears a share of the responsibility for whatever contractors did wrong.
Since the beginning of hostilities in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), the military has relied heavily on open burn pits to dispose of the large quantities of solid waste generated at its installations, but CENTCOM did not develop comprehensive guidance on operating or monitoring burn pits until 2009, well after both conflicts were under way. Furthermore, our site visits and review of contractor documentation found that burn pit operators did not always comply with this guidance. In addition, DOD health officials said that many items now prohibited from burn pits, such as plastics, have been routinely burned at U.S. military bases from the start of each conflict.
GAO also found that the Defense Department has not ensured that burn pit operators consistently followed relevant regulations. Between January and March 2010, GAO determined that, to varying degrees, the four burn pits it visited at bases in Iraq--one operated by military personnel and three operated by contractor personnel--were not managed in accordance with CENTCOM's 2009 regulation.
For example, GAO determined that operators at all four of these burn pits burned varying amounts of plastic--a prohibited item that can produce carcinogens when burned.And sometimes a contractor operated a pit based on outmoded guidance.
The contractor operating the burn pits at two bases we visited did not have contracts reflecting current guidance. According to a senior representative of this firm, the MNC-I Environmental Standard Operating Procedure 2006 is the guidance referenced in its burn pit contract. Thus the company provided Iraq burn pit management activities in the context of that guidance, which contains less stringent requirements than the CENTCOM 2009 regulation.
According to the contractor's representative, the company prepared plans, which DOD reviewed and approved, based on the MNC-I 2006 guidance. However, DOD officially requested the contractor incorporate MNC-I Environmental Standard Operating Procedure 2009 into its operations. According to Army contracting specialists, such contract modifications are typically long and tedious, often requiring months of negotiations. As of June 2010, DOD and the contractor had yet to finalize this update, at least in part because the contractor believed the new guidance would require activities beyond the scope of existing task orders.
by David Isenberg for the Huffington Post. You can also follow David Isenberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/vanidan
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