As US combat troops leave Iraq this month, one of the problems left behind is a critical shortage of electricity for ordinary Iraqis.
The problem used to be blamed on the insurgency, but now -- with the insurgency largely quelled -- it is a measure of the future economic and political challenges the country faces instead.
The country is generating almost double the amount of electricity it did immediately before the 2003 invasion, but the amount is still woefully inadequate to meet ordinary Iraqis' needs.
"It comes for one hour although it is not for a whole hour. It goes on and off all the time. Technically we have the electricity for about 20 minutes only," says one Baghdad resident who wished to remain anonymous.
"We get our electricity from the generators in the house and the generators on the street and that is all. There is no electricity, it is hardly ever there."
The complaints are particularly loud now as the Muslim population observes the fasting period of Ramadan. With temperatures running in the mid-40s (Celsius), and people forgoing water and food during the day, the lack of power for air conditioners and fans is especially heartfelt.
Public confidence that anyone -- including the Americans or the Iraqi government -- can solve the situation is hard to find. As this woman, who also refused to give her name, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq recently, "Let's see what the new minister will do and if he can do something for us. From the beginning, he has lied to us."
The new minister is Hussein al-Shahristani, who is also the oil minister and took over as acting head of the Electricity Ministry last month. The previous electricity minister resigned after a demonstration against power shortages in Basra turned violent and police opened fire, killing at least one protester.
To deliver the power supplies Iraqis want, the new electricity minister will have to reverse what since 2003 has been a history of massive investment with little result.
On average, Baghdad -- with a population of around 5.5 million people --had just five hours of electricity a day last month, despite the fact the United States has spent $5 billion on projects to bring more electricity to the country.
"The New York Times" reported last month that the money spent on electricity projects amounts to nearly 10 percent of the $53 billion Washington has spent on rebuilding Iraq, which was crippled by economic sanctions before the 2003 invasion. The amount is second only to what has been spent on rebuilding Iraq's security forces.
The dismal record underlines the size of the difficulties still facing Iraq despite the milestone of U.S. combat forces leaving the country. Less than 50,000 U.S. soldiers will remain in Iraq until the end of 2011, officially in a training and "advisory" capacity.
The slow progress in improving the country's infrastructure used to be largely blamed on the insurgency. But the insurgency, despite launching suicide bombings and other attacks across Iraq on August 25 that killed at least 60 people, is now considered largely quelled. And that puts the spotlight for the electricity problems squarely on the government's ability to deliver a better future.
Ali al-Saffar, an Iraq expert at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, says most of the areas where electricity is generated are safe.
"If we look at the current government strategy, it is to make sure that power plants are built in the oil region down south. These provinces have by and large been quite safe, so it's no longer enough to blame the insurgency, blame terrorism, for the lack of progress there," al-Saffar says.
"More to the point, I think, government bureaucracy, corruption, and unwillingness to get things done can be blamed."
One problem of poor planning and coordination is the fact that new generators installed since the United States toppled Saddam in 2003 are designed to operate on natural gas. But natural gas supplies for the generators are in short supply as much of what Iraq produces today is exported for hard currency or simply flared off in oil fields.
"The New York Times" recently reported that to compensate for the shortage some of the gas-fired generators are run on fuel oil instead. The fuel oil is readily available but makes the generators run at reduced capacity.
In a visible measure of the problems, the Iraqi government this summer had to pay for two electricity-generating ships from Turkey to dock near Basra to supplement that city's power supply. The stopgap solution cost the government hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Meanwhile, the demand for electricity only keeps increasing as Iraq's economy finally grows after the security nightmares of the previous years.
"Current demand is somewhere around 14,000 megawatts a day. Now, that's a huge increase over a few years ago. One of the aspects -- and I think it would be a quite large aspect because you see electricity demand peak in the summer -- is the ability of normal Iraqis to purchase white goods, things like refrigerators, washing machines, but also air conditioners," al-Saffar says.
Al-Saffar estimates that the electricity supply in Iraq is currently meeting just 46 percent of demand. He says that creates a hunger for electricity that makes people turn on all their appliances at once when the power comes on simply because they know it will not last.
The strain of such overuse frequently brings down the power grid. So does widespread pilfering of electricity by people illegally siphoning off current from power lines.
As the electricity comes and goes, the shortages force many Iraqis to supplement their supply by using portable gasoline-powered generators. But the portable generators are too expensive to power anything more than a light and a television.
The government has pleaded for public patience as it plans to solve the problem by purchasing more turbine generators for power stations. In 2008, it announced a deal to buy 56 gas turbine generators from General Electric and 16 from Siemens at a total cost of some $ 5 billion.
Acting Electricity Minister Al-Shahristani told a press conference in Baghdad in July that the new generators will allow Iraq to add 5,000 megawatts by 2012.
"Currently, Iraq needs about 5,000 megawatts, and then we need to provide more than 1,000 megawatts a year and continue like that for a minimum of 10 years. An immediate investment is needed to build electricity plants in eight different places to supply a large amount of electricity," al-Shahristani said.
But many observers say that the goal of adding 5,000 megawatts over the next two years may be too ambitious to be completed on schedule.
Hamish McNinch, a former British Army engineer who served as principle energy adviser to coalition commanders in Iraq in 2008 and 2009, commented last month in "The Wall Street Journal" that buying new generators is the easiest part of the energy equation.
"The construction and commissioning of the full power plants is the real challenge," he wrote. "That's a job for consulting engineers and construction companies, none of whom have yet been selected, let alone contracted, to start the work."
McNinch warned that time is not on the government's side as the public's demand for electricity grows more pressing.
He noted that "adequate power for civilians will be key to maintaining stability once U.S. troops leave because it not only would increase the well-being of ordinary Iraqis and further reduce support for insurgents but also stimulate the economy."
Al-Saffar says one fix might be for the Iraqi government to give up some of the "nationalization" mindset it appears to have inherited from the Saddam era. That mindset regards oil and gas -- and the electricity they generate -- as national resources to be closely held by officials.
He observes that in Iraqi Kurdistan, the semiautonomous government broke with tradition by using private contractors to bring two large power stations on line in 20 months and integrate them with natural-gas supplies. The move effectively ended power shortages in the region.
It could be time now for Baghdad to take a similar decentralized approach and cut through some of the bureaucratic entanglements that limit power supplies in the rest of Iraq.
Doing so might not only help with the electricity problems. It might also put Iraq more firmly on the free-market course it needs to become economically and politically strong enough to survive as a democracy, even after all the American troops return home.
By. Charles Recknagel