June 9, 2004
INSURGENTS' STRATEGY

Saboteurs May Be Aiming at Electrical and Water Sites as Summer Nears

By JAMES GLANZ

BAGHDAD, Iraq, June 8 — An enormous power plant south of Baghdad was shut down last weekend by coordinated attacks on fuel and transmission lines, American and Iraqi government officials said Tuesday. The sabotage raised new fears that insurgents were beginning to make targets of major sectors of the infrastructure as part of an overall plan to destabilize the interim Iraqi government.

At full production, the plant is capable of supplying nearly 20 percent of the entire electrical output of Iraq. But after the war, the plant's output plunged to nearly zero, and it is still generating only a fraction of its maximum output, said Raad al-Haris, deputy minister for electricity.

An official with the Coalition Provisional Authority, which is scheduled to hand over sovereignty to a new Iraqi government on June 30, confirmed that an oil pipeline south of Baghdad was struck in the last week. A second senior official in the Electricity Ministry said that the weekend attack was the latest in a series in the same area, and that repairs on the lines had repeatedly been followed by new strikes. This official said the pipeline also delivered crude oil to at least one major refinery, whose operations had also been affected.

By Tuesday, enough repairs had been done to bring the plant's output to about 300 megawatts of electricity out of a possible 750 megawatts for most of the day, the Iraqi official said. Power plants around the country put about 4,000 megawatts on the electrical grid, although demand is much higher — leading to frequent blackouts, both scheduled and unscheduled — and is expected to soar even further this summer.

"As we have been saying for some time, international terrorists and Saddam loyalists continue to try to derail the emergence of a modern democratic Iraq," Dallas Lawrence, a spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority, said in a statement. "These terrorists hope that by damaging Iraq's infrastructure, by depriving Iraqis of basic services, they will be able to impoverish the Iraqi people and capitalize on a sense of frustration."

He added: "They will not succeed."

More worrisome than this specific act of sabotage, said Mr. Haris, the Iraqi minister, is the pattern of attacks on the country's electrical grid. He estimated that the high-tension lines that are the backbone of the grid had been attacked an average of twice a week recently, and he expressed irritation at what he said was a refusal by the Coalition Provisional Authority to provide security for the lines.

"They did nothing about the transmission line security," Mr. Haris said. "They should. They say, `We have no such capability.' "

When the Electricity Ministry asked for a helicopter to patrol the lines, it was turned down, he said.

But the American official who confirmed the weekend attack said that the authority was helping train thousands of Electricity Ministry guards, but that no force could provide 24-hour-a-day security for the more than 10,000 miles of major power lines in Iraq.

The electrical turbines, power lines and other equipment at the plant south of Baghdad have been the focus of major reconstruction work as part of the overall rebuilding of the country, largely financed by billions of dollars of American money and revenues from Iraq's oil fields.

Even before the weekend strike, the area around the plant had been the subject of violence, including a drive-by shooting that killed two European engineers and a bomb attack on a police station.

A senior United States military intelligence official said insurgents in Iraq had begun to realize that with summer coming on, damaging the electrical and water infrastructure could sow widespread distrust and discontent with the occupation and its allies, including the new Iraqi government.

"This is a very big priority for them right now," said Ray Salvatore Jennings, representative in Iraq for the United States Institute of Peace, who often meets with American officials here. "They see this insurgency getting very sophisticated about targeting this to delegitimize the new regime."

Saad Shakir Tawfiq, an engineer who worked on the rehabilitation of the grid in 1991 and now leads a government-owned center in the Iraqi Ministry of Industry that is doing some work at several power plants, said the insurgents' effort aimed "to distract the American-backed government."

"If there is no electricity, no water, whatever, the government will fail," Dr. Tawfiq said.