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BAGHDAD (AP) — In the Baghdad suburb of Sadr City, glossy election campaign posters are plastered alongside jungles of sagging electrical wires lining the alleyway to Abu Ammar’s home.
But his mind is far from Iraq’s Oct. 10 federal election. The 56-year-old retired soldier’s social welfare payments barely cover the cost of food and medicine, let alone elec- tricity. Despite chronic outages from the national grid, Abu Ammar can’t afford a generator.
When the lights go off, he has no choice but to steal power from a neighbor’s line. He doesn’t have the right political connections to get electricity otherwise, he says, a frail figure seated in a spartan liv- ing room.
In this country, if you don’t have these contacts, “your situation will be like ours,” Abu Ammar says.
In Iraq, electricity is a potent symbol of endemic corruption, rooted in the country’s sectarian power-sharing system that allows political elites to use
patronage networks to consolidate power. It’s perpetuated after each election cycle: Once results are tallied, politicians jockey for appointments in a flurry of negotiations based on the number of seats won. Ministry portfolios and state institutions are divided between them into spheres of control.
In the Electricity Ministry, this system has enabled under-the-table payments to political elites who siphon state funds from companies contracted to improve the delivery of services.
The Associated Press spoke to a dozen former and current ministry officials and company contractors. They described tacit partnerships secured through intimidation and mutual benefit between min- istry political appointees, polit- ical parties and the companies, ensuring that a percentage of those funds end up in party coffers. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisal from political groups. “Corruption occurs as an individual act or for political interest,” said ministry spokesman Ahmed Mousa. “It
happens everywhere in Iraq, not just the Electricity Ministry.”
Meanwhile, the public seethes, outraged that in Iraq, a major oil-producing country with plentiful energy resources, the prospect of electricity 24-hours-a-day is a distant dream. Neighborhoods nationwide face daily outages — up to 14 hours during peak summer in the impoverished southern provinces, where temperatures can reach 52 degrees Celsius (125 Fahrenheit).
It’s a conundrum that baffles energy experts.
“The technical solutions are clear, and it’s not happening. One has to ask why?” said Ali al-Saffar of the International Energy Agency.
In June, an Iraqi business- man received a call from the representative of the economic committee of the Sadrist Movement led by Muqtada al- Sadr, a populist Shiite cleric with a cult-like following whose party garnered the most seats in the 2018 elec- tion.
The representative, Abbas al-Kufi, wanted to see him. He
had been informed the busi- nessman met with Electricity Ministry officials to discuss a multi-million-dollar project to increase languishing tariff col- lections — bills owed to the government by consumers, which in Iraq are rarely paid.
At al-Kufi’s office, the busi- nessman was instructed to deliver 15% of earnings, in cash, once the deal was inked and the ministry paid out the invoices.
“He told me, ‘The Electricity Ministry belongs to me, to my party,’ and I can’t do anything without his approval,” the businessman recalled being told by al-Kufi, who wields untold influence cemented by the Sadrist Movement’s power- ful militia arm.
“They aren’t shy,” the busi- nessman added. “They tell you: ‘If you don’t follow us, we will hurt you.’”
Al-Kufi, once a militia figure in the fight against the Islamic State group, is the latest example of party economic representatives who have strong-armed companies over the years.
Through coordination among ministry loyalists, com- pany officials and lawmakers,
representatives like al-Kufi are appointed to ensure certain contracts are approved, a con- tractor of their choosing is selected to execute them and a cut delivered to the party, according to officials at six companies involved in the process since 2018.
Al-Kufi was named in the local media in July when a let- ter purportedly penned by for- mer Electricity Minister Majid Hantoush accused him of undermining the ministry’s work. Hantoush, who later resigned, denied writing it. Nassar Rubaie, the head of the Sadrist Movement’s politi- cal wing, said his party earned the electricity ministry because it won the most par- liament seats in the 2018 elec- tion. The ministry, with its high state budget, is among the most sought after. He con- firmed al-Kufi was a Sadrist figure, but denied the allega- tions against him or the Movement, saying they amounted to “slander.”
If documents exist proving the complicity of Sadrist offi- cials, he would personally see to it that they are prosecuted in a court of law, al-Rubaie added.
Only, no such paper trail exists.
Contractors said intimida- tion is standard operating pro- cedure in the Electricity Ministry. One official from a major multinational company said he was ordered to sub- contract to a local company exclusively as a package of deals worth billions was being negotiated with the govern- ment.
“It was made clear to me: ‘Either you join us, or you will get nothing in the end,’” he said.
To secure the funds for pay- off, sometimes more expensive materials are invoiced than what is actually bought. One official estimated “billions” have been lost to these schemes since 2003, but accurate figures are not avail- able.
Officials who question why contract prices are inflated receive warnings, including one who objected to a power plant in northern Salahaddin province that was overvalued by $600 million. He got a call when it became clear he would not sign off on the deal, he said.
Be careful, he was told.