Restoring power plant, but also sense of purpose

Staff at Baghdad station eager for work, a salary

War In Iraq

April 16, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Morning is the busiest time of day at the Dora Power Station. Dozens of employees arrive early, neatly dressed and ready to do their jobs, as before the war.

By midday many have gone home. There is little work to be done.

The story of the Dora power plant is the story of Iraq, a country that is struggling to rebuild its civilian infrastructure one power plant, one building, and sometimes even one piece of machinery, at a time.

Power-generating machinery at the sprawling plant in southern Baghdad has been quiet for more than a week, an indirect casualty of war between the United States and Iraq.

"I ready for work, but no work," Huda Anwar, manager of the spare parts office, said yesterday in halting but clear English. "When plant ready for work, I am very happy. Life begin with work." Officials at the state-owned plant have been scheming for days to restart one eight-story-high steam generator near a lazy bend in the Tigris River.

Early yesterday, they spoke optimistically of reviving unit No. 3 by day's end. The 160-megawatt Italian-made generator can power thousands of homes.

Doing so would help lift a veil of darkness from this city of 5 million and aid its recovery. But for the 600 employees, it would be more personal. It would give them back a sense of purpose and maybe even a salary.

Plant manager Janan Behnam, a small, fidgety man with salt-and-pepper hair, began the day's planning at a 9 a.m. meeting led by Brig. Gen. Steve Hawkins, the Army's point man for restoring power, water and sewer service in Baghdad.

By then, the lane in front of the plant's three-story office building teemed with employees, some in dress clothes and some in work overalls. Many had not seen each other since the plant shut down April 5, others for a week before that. Close friends kissed each other on the cheek three times. Someone set out a bag of dates, and the mostly male group gathered around to nibble and catch up.

It looked like a family reunion - at a military base. The Army's 101st Airborne Division is guarding the plant from looters and intruders, and one battalion has set up camp on the leafy grounds. The tanklike Bradley fighting vehicles escorting Hawkins to the meeting added to the military presence.

Behnam received good news at the hourlong closed-door session. A nearby oil refinery would supply Dora with enough fuel to run the No. 3 turbine once it was powered up. Behnam still had to solve another key problem, though. He needed to find enough electricity from outside the plant to jump-start the steam unit.

Usually, four smaller natural gas turbines would be used to power up the four steam turbines, but U.S. airstrikes on a military airfield north of Baghdad damaged the gas pipeline, Behnam said.

The Dora station, which opened in 1965, was spared during this war.

Previous wars were a different story, though, and Behnam can rattle off the details of damage from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and the 1991 gulf war as if it all happened yesterday.

Both times, the power plant was rebuilt and expanded. This time, Behnam was not worried about a direct hit.

"American side, they said power stations and other civilian places would not be bombed," he said. "They don't want to destroy. In my mind, I believe it." A pipeline on the property has fresh holes in it, and Behnam said he thinks it was caused by U.S. cluster bombing of nearby targets that accidentally hit the pipe. Hawkins said a more likely explanation is Iraqi anti-aircraft fire.

In either case, everyone agrees that the ruptured gas line to the north is what led to the plant's April 5 shutdown.

The prospect of bringing back No. 3 - the only one of four steam turbines not undergoing maintenance or overhaul since before the war - excited workers. Until the 101st Airborne's 3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment secured the plant Saturday, power plant officials were leery of stepping foot on the grounds.

Looters had kicked holes in doors, emptied drawers and managed to pry open two safes holding 10 million Iraqi dinars, or about $3,300. No one knew whether they would come back or who else might be lurking about.

Mechanical engineer Mazin Adnan arrived yesterday eager to get back to work even if there was no government to pay his salary.

"Power back," he said with a grim smile, "but money not back." He had a simple explanation for why he and so many others showed up anyway: "My family needs electricity. Their families need electricity. Therefore I come here without money." Electrical engineer Omar Rashid, chatting with Adnan in the lobby, shrugged off the lack of pay. "Not a problem," he said. "One month, two, three." He said his family stockpiled food before the war and has enough to eat.

Over lunch, Behnam said he thought he might have the power situation figured out. He arranged to get about 3 megawatts of power from a substation that has a large diesel generator. He wished he had double that amount but would give it a try anyway.

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