Don’t ‘politicize’ electricity, Iraq minister urges as summer nears

Iraqis demonstrated against the poor public services in 2018. (AFP/File)
Updated 15 May 2019
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Don’t ‘politicize’ electricity, Iraq minister urges as summer nears

  • The minister said electricity is an issue of national security
  • He was appointed in October to restore the Iraqi grid

BAGHDAD: With temperatures rising on both the weather and security fronts across the region, Iraq’s freshman electricity minister is warning that politicizing his country’s power sector could have ripple effects around the world.
“Electricity is a national security issue,” Luay Al-Khateeb told AFP in a wide-ranging interview at the ministry’s headquarters in Baghdad.
“In the end, any political, economic or security crisis in Iraq will affect the whole region — and the global economy will be open to threat.”
“We’re urging for this file not to be politicized.”
Khateeb, a 51-year-old energy expert, was appointed minister in October with a mandate to revamp Iraq’s grid, which was already ailing before it was further crippled by Daesh.
But he faces a pair of formidable political challenges to a typically dry, technical portfolio: the threat of renewed protests and escalating US pressure on energy-supplier Iran.
Demonstrations erupted in 2018 across Iraq against poor services, including the measly few hours of state-provided electricity per day.
This summer will be a de facto referendum on the government’s progress.
Khateeb, optimistic, said his ministry had revived out-of-service stations, fixed transmission lines, and brought temporary generators to battered areas including Mosul that IS held in the north.
“On October 25, the week I took office, electricity generation sat at between 9.5 to 10 GW. It is now at 15 GW,” Khateeb said.
Most Iraqi provinces, he said, “will receive no less than 20 hours of electricity per day. This, to be honest, is a level of production the country hasn’t seen in years.”
In the medium term, the ministry is developing solar power, gas-capturing capabilities, and energy deals with neighbors.
It signed contracts worth $785 million with Germany’s Siemens last month, amid expectations of similar deals with American rival General Electric.
Around a third of Iraq’s electricity relies on Iran, through 28 million cubic meters of gas piped in to feed stations or the direct import of up to 1,300 megawatts of Iranian-produced electricity.
When Washington reimposed sanctions on Iran last year, it granted Iraq temporary exemptions until late June.
Khateeb declined to say what would happen if the waiver was not again extended.
“I’m not in the business of making predictions, but what I ask for from world powers is a little reasonableness so we can live in peace on this planet,” he said.
Tensions have ramped up between Washington and Tehran, with Baghdad often caught in the middle.
Iraqi government sources say the US is pressuring Baghdad to partner with American companies including General Electric, ExxonMobil and Honeywell as it weans off Iranian energy.
Khateeb acknowledged foreign embassies were pushing for their interests in Iraq’s power sector, but said Baghdad would try to steer clear of the politics.
“The truth is we don’t want to be a scapegoat in conflicts that will negatively affect regional security, and in turn the global economy,” he said.
Besides the ticking clocks of the Iraqi street and geopolitical tensions, Khateeb admitted pressure from within the government itself.
He said he had “inherited a bureaucracy” and was often asked for favors or employment opportunities.
Asked whether he, like Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, kept his resignation letter close at hand, Khateeb sounded determined.
“One needs to have a thick skin,” he said.
“Either I focus on the politicians, or I focus on the work.”


Citizen journalist among 11 civilians killed in northwest Syria

Updated 14 min 38 sec ago
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Citizen journalist among 11 civilians killed in northwest Syria

  • Anas Al-Dyab, a photographer and videographer in his early 20s, was a member of the White Helmets

KHAN SHEIKHUN: A young citizen journalist was among 11 civilians killed in air raids on Syria’s Idlib region Sunday, rescue workers and a monitor said, as he filmed the Russia-backed regime bombardment of the battered enclave.
Anas Al-Dyab, a photographer and videographer in his early 20s, was a member of the White Helmets who also contributed to AFP.
He was killed in Russian air strikes in the town of Khan Sheikhun, rescuers and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The White Helmets, rescue workers in rebel areas named after their distinctive hard hats, said the group “mourns the fall of a hero Anas Al-Dyab, a volunteer and media activist with the Syrian Civil Defense Center in Idlib,” in a Twitter post.
An AFP journalist saw White Helmet members gather to bid farewell to their friend, whose body was laid on a thick red blanket.
The Damascus regime and its Russian ally have stepped up their deadly bombardment of the jihadist-run region of Idlib since late April, despite a September buffer zone deal to protect the region of some three million people from a massive military assault.
Khan Sheikhun, a town in the south of Idlib, has been particularly hit, forcing thousands to flee their homes there, according to the United Nations.
But Dyab “chose to remain with his fellow volunteers in Khan Sheikhun till today,” the White Helmets said.
Raed Al-Saleh, the head of the White Helmets, said Dyab was killed while “trying to show the world what’s going on in Syria.”
“It’s a great loss,” he said.
Dyab, who was single, leaves behind his parents and three brothers, one of whom is held by the Damascus regime, Saleh said.
The Observatory said Dyab was hiding in the cellar of a three-story building with two members of the Jaish Al-Ezza rebel group when the strike happened.
Also on Sunday, regime air strikes killed 10 other civilians including three children in other parts of the bastion, said the Britain-based monitor, which relies on sources inside Syria for its information.
Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham in January took full administrative control of the Idlib region, although other jihadists and rebels are also present.
The Idlib region is supposed to be protected by a September 2018 deal between Russia and rebel backer Turkey, but a buffer zone planned under that accord was never fully implemented.
The White Helmets, who are backed by the West, were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016.
But Moscow and Damascus accuse the group of backing rebels and jihadists.
Syria’s war has killed a total of more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011 with a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests.