In the Iraqi summer, when the temperature rises above 120 degrees Fahrenheit, electricity becomes even more of a political issue than usual. This past week, at the top of Iraqis’ agenda, it has even eclipsed war with the Islamic State.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared a four-day weekend to keep people out of the sun, but he did not stop there. He also called in the electricity minister for emergency consultations, and ordered an end to one of the most coveted perks of government officials: round-the-clock power for their air conditioners.
Now, the scheduled daily power cuts that other Iraqis have long endured are to be imposed on government offices and officials’ homes.
That may not be enough for Iraqis, whose oil-rich country has not supplied reliable electricity since the U.S. invasion in 2003 in Baghdad – and in many provinces, far longer. One of the country’s largest recent grass-roots protests shut down traffic in Baghdad on Friday night, and more protests took place Saturday in southern Iraq.
Several thousand people – workers, artists and intellectuals – demonstrated Friday evening in Tahrir Square in the center of Baghdad, chanting and carrying signs about the lack of electricity and blaming corruption for it. They blocked traffic at a major roundabout, waiting until sundown to avoid the heat and to have more impact, since the streets are quieter during the day as people stay out of the sun.
Some men stripped to their shorts and lay down in the street to sleep, a strong statement in a modest society where it is rare to see men bare-chested in public.
The protest was unusual in that it did not appear to have been called for by any major political party. People carried Iraqi flags and denounced officials. Security forces with riot shields blocked them from moving across a bridge toward the restricted Green Zone where many officials live.
Courteous police officers handed out water, a shift from earlier years when they responded harshly to electricity protests. One police officer there even denounced his commanders, saying they had sent him and other officers to infiltrate the protest as provocateurs. Instead, he had joined it in earnest.
Shouting at a cellphone camera with the protest visible behind him, he said he was told to “ruin the protest.” Cursing his boss by name and flashing a police identity card, he added, “We will continue calling for our demands even if you fire me.”
Within hours, al-Abadi praised the protesters for standing up for their rights, and called in the electricity minister. The minister told Parliament last week that the electricity grid would crank up to 11,000 megawatts, barely half of the summer’s peak demand of 22,000 megawatts. Normal capacity is closer to 8,500 megawatts.
Earlier Friday, in the weekly sermon in the shrine city of Karbala that typically addresses the political issues of the day, a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric, had exhorted the government to address “the sufferings of citizens” over electricity.
“Unfortunately, every government is blaming the government that came before it,” Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai, the representative, declared to a sweltering audience packing one of the city’s great shrines.
He came around only later to the subject of the war on the militants of the Islamic State group – also known as ISIS and Daesh – who control large parts of the country.
“The people are still patient toward the sufferings, and also they are sacrificing themselves to fight Daesh terrorism to defend Iraq,” he said. “But there are limits to patience.”
That conflict made the even hotter than usual temperatures in recent days an even bigger problem. More than 3 million people have been displaced by the fighting, and many lack basic shelter to protect them from the heat.
On Saturday, residents protested in the southern cities of Basra and Karbala. Another demonstration was planned for Sunday in the city of Babil, also in the south. Al-Abadi, in a televised address, called the protests an “early warning” sign about “an error that we must solve immediately,” adding, “The people will resort to revolutionary sentiments if this situation continues.”
Iraqis have been complaining about electricity at least since the United States toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. In the resulting security vacuum, widespread looting, which U.S. troops had no orders to prevent, dismantled much of what had been left of the electricity grid, already eroded by years of sanctions and war.
“Maku kahraba! Maku amn!” were the complaints leveled by pretty much all Iraqis to any American they came across back in those first days of the U.S. occupation. “There is no electricity. There is no security.” In that order.
Iraqis in Baghdad had been used to a fairly reliable supply of electricity. Saddam had kept the capital disproportionately supplied, with few power failures. It was different in the southern provinces, whose residents are predominantly from the oppressed Shiite majority, which had risen up against Saddam in an uprising that was brutally suppressed in 1991. Many areas there got only a few hours a day.
U.S. occupation officials evened out the supply all over the country - making it more equitable but also shocking residents of Baghdad who were suddenly subjected to the long powerless days that other Iraqis had been used to. The cuts were also new and enraging to people in the Sunni heartland in the north and west, the fulcrum of Saddam’s residual support and of the brewing insurgency against the occupation.
Among the failures of the U.S. administration of Iraq was the inability to meet repeated promises to get the electricity back up to the levels under Saddam. Occupation officials put out charts trumpeting modest improvements.
But a combination of insurgent attacks, incompetence and corruption kept the system struggling, both then and after political power was nominally handed to an Iraqi government in 2004. The problems have continued since U.S. troops left in 2011.
More than once, Iraqis sleeping on their rooftops to keep cool have been killed by stray gunfire.
Many Iraqis have air conditioners in their homes but during power cuts only some can afford to pay for generators. Those who can must often scale back to fans and simple air coolers because there is not enough power for air conditioners while on generator power, and sometimes even when on the regular grid.
So the lucky ones drive around in their cars with the air conditioning on, visit shopping malls, or wait for the air coolers to switch on and huddle around them in a single room. Those without that wherewithal find cool where they can, sometimes swimming in dirty, sewage-tainted pools and canals.
Help is on the way, though, from Iran, which gained significant influence in Iraq after the fall of Saddam and the end of the troubled U.S. involvement.
According to Iran’s state-run Press TV, an Iranian company recently signed a deal to add 3,000 megawatts to the grid by building a $2.5 billion power plant in Basra, the country’s biggest engineering services deal ever. It will be supplied by a pipeline carrying Iranian natural gas.