Scams Enrage Karbala Residents

Politicians and militia accused of stealing electricity supplies.

Scams Enrage Karbala Residents

Politicians and militia accused of stealing electricity supplies.

Wednesday, 31 October, 2007
Officials and local militia groups in the southern province of Karbala are siphoning off the province’s dwindling power supply, leaving residents to rely on private generators, say local people.

“There are some terrorists who set off bombs, and there some are terrorists who steal, like those officials [who keep electricity for themselves],” said Ali Jafar, a 55-year-old resident of the Shia city’s al-Malimeen neighbourhood.

The Iraqi government estimates it is only supplying about half the electricity to service the needs of the public and businesses across the country, which are demanding more power than ever before.

In Karbala, the power runs for about two hours for every four hours of blackouts.

Karbala governor Aqil Mamoud al-Khazali told IWPR that the province receives about one-third of the power it actually needs.

Khazali estimated that Karbala province requires 250 megawatts per day, but receives no more than 70 megawatts for its 500,000 population, which has been swollen by an influx of people displaced by violence in other parts of the country.

Khazali said the authorities were “embarrassed before our own people” for not being able to provide locals with more electricity, but insisted that public services had to take priority.

“Hospitals, police stations, sewage plants, pumping stations and water plants… must have access to continuous electricity in order to operate properly,” he said.

In early August, the AP news agency reported that a power station in Karbala was shut down because there was no fuel to run it. The outage left the provincial capital without mains water and power for days.

Such outages have angered Karbala’s residents, forcing many to rely on private generators. They claim that while they have to provide for themselves, political parties, officials and even militia groups are receiving so-called emergency lines that ensure they have round-the-clock electricity.

“My neighbour, who was a member of parliament, has always had an emergency line,” said Mohammed Ali al-Karbaley, a civil servant. “I don’t have an [alternative] power source. We wait for hours for the power to come on.”

Shia militias affiliated with various political factions remain powerful in Karbala, one of the holy cities of this branch of Islam.

An employee at Karbala’s electricity department, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said militias acquire illegal lines through their connections, but the department turns a blind eye to it for fear of the consequences of trying to stop the racket.

Last summer, the government in Baghdad ordered the Karbala authorities to shut down these emergency lines, said Iraqi electricity minister Kareem Waheed. He insisted there was no evidence that the practice was continuing, “I challenge anyone to come up with any information about such abuses.”

But Khazali admitted electricity distribution was being abused and that supplies were being stolen in the province. He said provincial officials had begun identifying and cutting emergency lines. In one week, 650 had been shut down, he said.

Khazali said many of the problems stemmed from corrupt managers and staff within the electricity department. He refused to identify any suspects but said an official probe had been launched.

Meanwhile, Karbala residents may soon get some relief from the daily outages. Iran has agreed to provide southern Iraq with cheap electricity and has offered to build a large power plant between Karbala and Najaf.

The move has, however, unnerved American officials who are concerned about Tehran’s support for Shia militant groups in the country.

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