Restoring Iraqis' power -- the electric kind

U.S. assumes control of plant, working to resume its operation

War In Iraq

April 13, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The United States government talks about giving the Iraqi people liberty, but what they need now is light.

This is why soldiers in the 101st Airborne Division took control yesterday of the Dora Power Station, which until April 5 generated electricity on the banks of the Tigris River.

With power still out across much of the capital city, efforts to create a sense of stability for its 5 million residents have creaked along. Army officers recognize that restoring electricity - along with food and water - ranks up there with ferreting out any remaining forces loyal to Saddam Hussein.

This morning, commanders of the 101st are to meet with plant officials to coordinate plans to make the necessary repairs. There is no simple fix, though.

A crucial station

One break in a critical natural gas line occurred well north of Baghdad. The natural gas supply powers auxiliary generators that, in turn, fire the 8-story-high boilers linked to the much larger steam generators.

This sleeping giant, with its four 250-foot smokestacks, is one of five plants in the Baghdad area, managers say. It can produce enough power to run 150,000 homes - when it is functioning.

But the gas line ruptures have kept it idle for a week now, and managers of the state-owned plant built in 1984 say it could be nearly two weeks before the turbines crank up again.

The plant officials also say there is damage on the plant property - a leak in a gas tank and more holes in a gas line - possibly caused by U.S. bombs. The U.S. military has said it tried to avoid knocking out civilian power supplies, and it is not clear that the damage was bomb-related.

While the 101st is better equipped to destroy power stations than to get them running again, it does have an important role to play in this process.

First is to stop the looting. The plant's three-story office building had been ransacked by the time U.S. soldiers arrived yesterday. Doors were smashed and drawers rifled. Someone tried to burn open a safe. Plant managers ultimately hired armed guards to protect it.

Now about 200 members of the 3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment are living on the property, acting as caretakers with machine guns. A platoon of four tanks is assisting with security.

Despite the smiles and offer of black tea, plant officials seem ambivalent about U.S. soldiers being here.

Karim Hasan is director general of the Iraqi Electricity Commission's technical directorate. To top Army officers he expressed gratitude for their arrival. He mentioned that he was worried about the security of another power station northeast of Baghdad.

"If you send people immediately," he told Lt. Col. Ed Palekas, "it will be very helpful."

But in an interview a short time later, Hasan sounded like a different person. Asked what the plant needed to regain stability, he said, "We need many things - to get rid of British and American troops from the country. The Iraqi people decide what they need."

Uncertain timeline

It was not clear if Hasan was expressing the frustration of someone who was trying to get a power plant up and running, or someone who was once part of a fallen regime. While many ordinary Iraqis lived in fear and stagnation under Saddam Hussein's rule, Hasan obviously did well for himself.

One of the first repair projects will be to weld broken pipelines here at the plant. But when that may happen is anyone's guess.

"Maybe tomorrow, maybe after tomorrow," said Mahmood Radhi, an electrical engineer at the plant. "I don't know."

Hasan described a vexing problem: It takes 500 employees to run the Dora plant, and they have not been seen for days. One issue is transportation, he said. Another is the lack of money to pay their salaries.

"How can we pay them?" he said. "There is no government."

The 3rd Battalion is in no hurry to leave. This is riverfront real estate with trees, grass and quiet. The plant's office has commanding views of central Baghdad beyond the river. And despite all of the looting, troops find it comfortable inside.

One lieutenant sat in a corner office under the Hussein portraits that hang in every room. He propped his feet on the desk and puffed on a cigar. He could see around him, too, but only because the division has its own generator.

Otherwise he would have been in the dark like so many others.

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