Al-Abadi rivals sabotage Iraq’s power lines and fuel protests

Protests in Basra against government services started last month after power supplies plummeted. (AFP)
Updated 07 August 2018

Al-Abadi rivals sabotage Iraq’s power lines and fuel protests

  • Sabotage of power lines increased dramatically after protests began
  • 'Almost all the political parties are involved,' senior national security official tells Arab News.

BAGHDAD: Growing attacks against Iraq’s electricity infrastructure are being orchestrated to fuel widespread protests and thwart Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s attempts to quell the crisis, Iraqi officials have told Arab News.

Sabotage of power lines and pylons has increased dramatically in the three weeks since protests in the south plunged the country into its latest security emergency.

Demonstrations in impoverished Shiite-dominated provinces and Baghdad have focused on the lack of basic services and high rates of poverty and unemployment.

But the main trigger for the protests, which started in Basra on July 18, was the serious shortage of electricity, leaving Iraqis with less than six hours of power a day in summer when temperatures reach 50 degrees Celsius.

The situation was exacerbated when Iran suspended the supply of 1,000 megawatts across the border, after Iraq was unable to maintain payments due to the difficulty of sending money because of new sanctions.

While sabotage of power lines is relatively common in Iraq, attacks became a daily occurrence just two days after the protests started in Basra, the country’s main oil hub.

Official records obtained by Arab News showed that between July 20 and Aug. 4 at least 22 sabotage attacks targeted power lines supplying the southern and northern provinces except the Kurdistan Region.

Just five attacks took place between the start of April and July 20.

Most of the damage involved shooting down power lines or blowing up the bases of towers, officials told Arab News. 

“These are sabotage attacks, not terrorist, and they are aimed at weakening the government and covering up the ministry’s achievement,” Mohammed Fattehi, the media adviser to the Minister of Electricity, told Arab News.

“Our maintenance teams work day and night to repair the damage, but the attacks occur on a daily basis, indicating that they are planned, not random.”

The sabotage and the protests are taking place at a time when Iraq is in political limbo after May elections, with attempts to build a coalition large enough to form a government stalled. 

Arab News reported last month that protests have been hijacked by political forces attempting to harness the public anger to further their own causes. 

Many have used the demonstrations to weaken Abadi, who is hoping to secure his second term as prime minister.

Investigations by Ministry of Electricity field teams and local security services recorded that the attacks were carried out by unknown persons, but federal security officials said they have identified perpetrators in each region. 

“Almost all the political parties are involved,” a senior national security official told Arab News.

“Our investigations suggest they (the parties) have been funding these attacks.

“Kurdish parties are behind most of the attacks that took place near Kirkuk and Diyala. Sunni and Shiite parties are totally behind the rest. 

“They aim to fuel the demonstrations and promote the idea of Abadi’s inability to address the problem (of electricity).”

The security official said that in the south and near Baghdad, all Abadi’s rivals are involved in the attacks. Even Sadrists (the followers of Muqtada A-Sadr), who publicly support Abadi, have carried out some of these attacks, the official said.

Decades of neglect, wars and economic blockade, along with the absence of strategic planning and the spread of corruption, have derailed nearly all of Iraq’s infrastructure projects, especially in the water and electricity sectors.

Most Iraqis receive less than 12 hours of electricity a day from the national grid. This is cut to less than half in summer, especially in the southern provinces, when usage spikes amid the high temperatures.

Iraq’s Ministry of Electricity said the country needs between 22,000 and 23,000 megawatts at peak times in summer. Current production does not exceed 15,000 megawatts in a country with some of the world’s largest oil reserves and vast solar potential.

The attacks on the power lines often cause power to go down across vast areas for 24 hours at at time. 

Anger at the shortages meant the protests quickly turned violent, with 14 demonstrators killed and hundreds wounded, mostly members of the security forces.

Protesters stormed headquarters of oil companies in Basra, an airport in Najaf and several partisan offices in Ammara, Najaf and Diwaniya and set fire to government buildings in other provinces.

Since the 2003 US-led invasion, the Ministry of Electricity has been one of the wealthiest government departments, and political parties have battled to control it because of its high annual budget.

They have also used the department as a tool to attack their rivals. 

Successive Iraqi governments spent more than $60 billion in the last 15 years to develop the electricity sector, but no significant improvement has been seen. 

All the ministers and deputy ministers who ran the ministry during the past four governments have left their positions facing corruption charges. Only one has been convicted so far. 

The current electricity minister, Qassim Al-Fahdawi, was interrogated by parliament last year over alleged corruption, but kept his job due to a lack of evidence.

In an attempt to appease protesters, Abadi last week suspended Fahdawi “to investigate the reasons behind the weak performance of his ministry.” 

To prove the failure of any government, political parties usually resort to focusing on electricity.

In October 2013, the political rivals of Nuri Al-Maliki, the then prime minister, refused to vote on a bill that would allow him to offer contracts to global companies to build multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects to improve the daily basic services. The move was one of the main factors that denied him a third term.

“It (electricity) is purely a political file that has been used in the past 15 years to pressure successive governments,” Iraqi analyst Abdulwahid Tuama told Arab News.

“They used it to prevent Al-Maliki from winning a third term and now they are using it to prevent Abadi from winning a second.”

Family backs Tlaib’s decision not to visit Israel

Updated 18 August 2019

Family backs Tlaib’s decision not to visit Israel

  • Israel said a humanitarian travel request by Tlaib would be considered as long as she promised not to promote a boycott against Israel

RAMALLAH: Relatives of a US congresswoman say they support her decision to decline Israel’s offer allowing her to visit them in the West Bank because the “right to travel should be provided to all without any conditions.”

Rashida Tlaib said she would not see her family, even after Israel lifted a ban on her entry, because the government had imposed restrictions on her trip.

“We totally understand her position and support her in her efforts. The right to travel should be provided to all without any conditions,” her uncle Bassam Tlaib told Arab News.

He was speaking from the family home in Beit Ur Al-Fuka, which is 3 km from the West Bank city of Ramallah, and was flanked by his elderly mother.

He said his niece had visited them many times in the past, but there had never been any conditions attached to her travel.

“She said we will meet when she can come without conditions,” Tlaib said. “One idea has been floated of flying the grandmother to the US or finding a way to have the two meetings in a third country. You know my mother is nearing 90 and it is not easy for her to travel but we are checking out all options.”

Tlaib, a Democrat, has criticized Israel’s policy toward Palestinians and had planned to make an official visit to the country.

Israel said a humanitarian travel request by Tlaib would be considered as long as she promised not to promote a boycott against Israel, local media reported.

But the congresswoman, who is Palestinian-American, lashed out on social media.

“I can’t allow the State of Israel to take away that light by humiliating me & use my love for my sity to bow down to their oppressive & racist policies,” she tweeted, using the word sity to refer to her grandmother. “Silencing me & treating me like a criminal is not what she wants for me. It would kill a piece of me. I have decided that visiting my grandmother under these oppressive conditions stands against everything I believe in — fighting against racism, oppression & injustice.”

The NGO hosting and organizing the trip, Miftah, has been criticized by supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Hanan Ashrawi, the NGO’s founder, said her staff had organized other congressional trips. “This was the third trip we have organized, and we try to do our work professionally and seriously,” Ashrawi told Arab News. “Our very mission is to promote global dialogue and democracy.”

Ashrawi said the attacks on Miftah were unwarranted.  “Miftah has been targeted with the expressed goal of trying to discredit us even though our record is clear. We believe that they are trying to keep organizing congressional delegations within the AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) monopoly, while we are trying to provide visitors with an opportunity to learn about Palestinian life under occupation and to understand the Palestinian narrative by providing opportunities for delegations to see and engage with Palestinians of all walks of life.” 

Ashrawi said Miftah had been “vetted” by the US Congress’ ethics committee. “We might not be able to bring hundreds of congress people like AIPAC, but we can bring a few and have them see, hear and interact with Palestinians.”

US President Donald Trump had called on Israel not to allow Tlaib and fellow congresswoman Ilhan Omar into Israel as admitting the two “would show great weakness.”

He tweeted that the pair “hate Israel and all Jewish people, and there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace.”