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Minister of Electricity Muhson Shlash, left, and Project and Contracting Officer director Hugh Exton sign an agreement giving $16.7 million to the Iraqi government for electrical reconstruction projects.
Minister of Electricity Muhson Shlash, left, and Project and Contracting Officer director Hugh Exton sign an agreement giving $16.7 million to the Iraqi government for electrical reconstruction projects. (Anita Powell / S&S)

BAGHDAD — Weeks before Iraqis head to the polls to elect a national government, U.S. forces are pushing hard to give more power — quite literally — to the fledgling Iraqi government.

A November agreement between the Iraqi Ministry of Electricity and the U.S. government will give Iraq over 500 kilovolts of power through two new projects: a new electrical substation in Najaf and a reconstructed power line in Basra.

While the projects themselves are a drop in the bucket of Iraq’s electric reconstruction needs, the $16.7 million agreement represents the first such initiative in which Iraqi leaders will take the helm, said Minister of Electricity Muhson Shlash.

Prior to the agreement, electric reconstruction projects in Iraq were directly managed by American forces, with input from the Iraqi government. Under the new agreement, the Iraqi government will manage the two projects, with money and oversight from the Project and Contracting Office, an arm of the U.S. Army.

“Before this date, there was no money given from the American side directly to the ministry,” said the British-educated Muhson, in English. “This one, although it’s small, it’s good because it’s a pilot project. Once we prove that the ministry can handle this, it will be better for both sides.”

PCO director Hugh Exton echoed Muhson’s thoughts.

“The point is to develop the Iraqis,” he said. “The idea is so we don’t have to do this anymore.”

“I think it’s a good start,” Muhson said. “I’m optimistic.”

Optimism aside, the minister acknowledged that Iraq’s reconstruction is far from fait accompli. He also acknowledged what many Baghdad residents anecdotally point out as the ministries’ biggest fault.

“There is corruption,” he said. “This is part of my problem, this corruption. This is not something we hide.

“Procedures are being followed,” he said. “This new government has a contract supervisory committee, that oversees contracts. It’s working very well.”

He also addressed another common complaint in Baghdad: spotty power service. Locals reported, and Muhson confirmed, that the city gets between four and six hours of electricity per day, a steep drop from pre-invasion levels of 18 or 19 hours.

“Hopefully things will get better,” he said, noting that the recent decline was due to an attack on a Baghdad power station.

Both Exton and Muhson expressed confidence in signing such an agreement before what could possibly amount to an Iraqi Cabinet-cleaning after the Dec. 15 national election.

“If you’re going to wait until everything is perfect, you’re never going to do it,” Exton said. “We need to get on getting on.”

Muhson added that political change would not affect the agreement.

“All the projects that have been signed will be honored,” Muhson said.

But when asked if he expected to still be the minister of electricity come Dec. 16, he smiled and shrugged.

“At this stage, nobody knows,” he said. “This is a new thing, this democracy.”

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