An Irish engineer’s experiences in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq
17 July 2014
When the United Nations (UN) sanctions imposed on Saddam Hussein began to seriously affect the people of Iraq, the UN knew that that it had a major humanitarian crisis on its hands. As a result, the biggest aid programme ever undertaken by the UN was launched. It was funded from the sale of Iraqi oil. The proceeds were lodged in an escrow bank account in the Banque de Paris and the aid programme funds were drawn from it.
Soon, $5 billion flowed into the escrow account every six months. This meant that $4 billion per annum went to the electricity Ssector of Iraq, which was in a shambles after the war with Iran, the invasion of Kuwait and its aftermath, and the various Kurdish insurgencies. The UN asked ESBI for an engineer to deal with the electricity sector and I was soon on my way to Baghdad.
I had worked for ten years at distribution level, ten years at transmission level and ten years at network planning in ESB. I also had some experience of restoring networks at home after major storms and much more experience of negotiating with very active trade unions in Cork. All of these were to stand me in good stead in my subsequent career.
All aerial traffic around Iraq was banned and the 11-hour journey to Baghdad was by road from Amman across the Syrian Desert. This barren area was heavily militarised, with the neighbours well aware of Saddam’s expansionist intentions. USAF F-16 jets roared across the sky as they trained with Jordanian Air Force and soldiers of the Royal Jordanian Army honed their skills in desert warfare.
I passed Azraq Castle, where Lawrence of Arabia launched his attack on Damascus, and was soon in the frontier post at Trebil, where one of Saddam’s Muhabbarat goons took my photo.
Soon, I was roaring down the six-lane highway to Baghdad, past the area where Saddam’s Scuds were launched at Israel and through Ramadi and Fallujah (towns that were sadly set to becomone infamous later in worldwide media reports). I also passed Abu Ghraib prison, innocent regarding what went on inside, and entered Baghdad.
I stayed at the Hotel Babel initially, right across the River Tigris from Saddam’s palaces in an area that would subsequently become known as the ‘Green Zone’. After just one week, a large number of Iraqi Army officers surveyed the hotel and, within days, the Babel was shut down – ostensibly because of an invasion of rats from the Tigris. I drew my own conclusions. In any case, I did not fancy pitching my tent on top of one of Saddam`s Command and Control Centres and booked into the famous Rasheed Hotel.
WORKING ON THE BOMB
Most of my Baghdad staff were located in the Saddoun Building, with one English engineer in As Sulaymainiah in Kurdistan. As was the UN custom, all Iraqi staff in a technical sector were required to have technical qualifications. Thus, my driver was an electronics lecturer from Baghdad University and some of the office assistants were nuclear physicists from Saddam’s nuclear-bomb programme (with whom I am still in contact).
The Western intelligence agencies were well aware that work on the bomb had stopped, as one of my employees was a divisional head in the bomb programme (Dr Imad Khadduri) and my opposite number on the Iraqi side was Dr Jaffer A Jaffer. He had been the head of the bomb project and, when it was shelved, he was tasked with restoring the Iraqi electrical system.
The work in the Saddoun Building was to approve and monitor the material the Iraqis had requested for their devastated system. But in the north, it was different. The Kurds had expelled all the Iraqi engineers and did not have the expertise to plan or erect their requirements themselves. The UN had to plan, specify, procure and erect all the required equipment there. I could mentally see red lights flashing and decided north was where the action was and north in Kurdistan was where I should be.
However, there was a problem. My nominal boss in Baghdad was the UN residential representative or ‘ResRep’ (ambassador). He was not technical and made life very difficult. He refused my request to go to Kurdistan and decided my place was in Baghdad to answer any awkward technical question addressed to him. I contacted New York and insisted that I be allowed go. Meanwhile, I visited every part of the city, as I am at heart a history buff.
I passed the al-Shaab football stadium many times, not knowing that a fellow Cork engineer, Tom Lynch, had been imprisoned there under atrocious conditions some time before in a special torture facility. It had been placed there by Saddam’s son Uday to torture members of the Iraqi football team – to motivate them – but its use was extended to outsiders when the demand grew. His incarceration is now an episode of the National Geographic series, ‘Banged Up Abroad’.
Eventually, I got the go-ahead to go to Kurdistan and set off. The road north from Baghdad is a journey through history, echoing with the sounds of Samarra, Mosul, Sargon’s Nineveh (of the Prophet Jonah), Baji and Kirkuk (of the Prophet Daniel). The armies of Alexander the Great; Darius, the King of Kings; Nebuchadnezzar; Hulagu, grandson of Genghis Khan; and the Mongol Khan Tamerlane, the ‘Scourge of God’, marched on this road. Eventually I got to the border of Kurdistan and saw my job in very stark terms.
Mile after mile of extra high voltage lines were on the ground, with towers leaning over drunkenly as each had been pulled down by hawser. Of all lines connecting Kurdistan with Iraq, only one was capable of delivering what my old Prof Teago called ‘blue-bottle power’. The sub-stations were worse. One was lucky to find a galvanised washer left on site.
FIGHTING A LOSING BATTLE
When I got into Kurdistan, my worst fears were realised. Every pick-up in the city sported electric utility insulated ladders, which were no doubt ordered and delivered by the UN and diverted by the recipients to all who could buy them. The rate of burnout of 400kva transformers (overloaded by illegal connections) exceeded the UN capacity to replace them, so we were fighting a losing battle. Ten times the amount required of one item would be ordered while complementary items were not ordered at all.
I met the politicians, the Barzanis (Barzani is now president of Kurdistan) in the west and Talabani (president of Iraq at present) in the east. I met the Kurdish engineers and had to insist that they leave their side-arms and machine-guns outside the meeting door before I would agree to start. There was a civil war going on there at the time.
I made a report of my findings to the UN and was instructed to now work directly on the UN staff, to pitch my tent in Kurdistan and turn the programme around. I established large warehouses and offices in the main cities, Erbil (the oldest continually inhabited city in the world), As Sulymainiah and Dohuk. I then went on a recruitment drive to Jordan, Egypt, India and Bosnia to increase the number of engineers. While in India, I was instructed to inspect the factories that were supplying large quantities of equipment to the programme
I brought 30 engineers back with me. When I left Iraq, I had 60 international consultants from Australia, India, Bosnia Egypt, the UK and Sri Lanka and almost double that number of locals on the ground in Kurdistan. As they arrived, I set them to work patrolling lines and substations in order to provide tender documents for international procurement.
At this stage, the programme foundered again with the UN bureaucratic procurement rules that took almost a year to work through. I decided that I would have to control the programme in the Middle East rather than New York and called for the programme to be based on the World Bank Model. Eventually, after several visits to New York with a UNDP Director to make a case for more direct control to Benon Sevon, the UN deputy secretary general, it was agreed that UNDP control the programme from Amman through direct execution and thus avoid the bureaucracy of UN procurement rules.
Part of the problem was that only two hydro power stations existed in the north and these were in a dangerous condition and liable to collapse. They had a combined generation nameplate rating of 649MW, but could only deliver 300MW to an area whose normal required electricity load was 3,000MW. This meant that the parts of the country with intact lines received two hours of electricity a day on a rollover basis.
The making safe of these dams were priorities set by Kofi Anan and the Security Council of the UN. A collapse of any of these dams would have flooded the Central Plain of Iraq as far as Baghdad, not to mention Saddam’s army that circled Kurdistan in a ring of steel. I was told in no uncertain terms that I was responsible for the safety of the dams. I also had an interest in the giant incomplete Behkma Dam (1500MVA) project that Saddam had to postpone as he could not fund it during the war with Iran.
I discussed this as a solution to the energy problem with Dr Jaffer, but the UN would not agree to increasing Iraq’s infrastructure due to the sanctions terms. I could not see the sense of adding repaired lines to a system that could not supply the existing load for more than two hours a day without providing extra generation. It sowed the seeds for my eventual dis-engagement.
I spent almost two years in Kurdistan and grew to love the place and its people. The Kurds are the descendants of the Medes, natural warriors now incarnated in the fearless Peshmerga. The descendants of their ancient enemies, the feared Assyrians, are now largely Christian and living in peace with them in Kurdistan.
IRAQI OIL FIELDS
When Saddam was removed, I was invited back to the southern Iraq oil fields to help restore the HV network to the area that served as the beating heart of the world economy. I was based in the HQ of the British Army in Basra Airport and had the privilege of witnessing the inner workings of a major modern army at war. The networks were out in the desert that was pockmarked with the signs of battle. Scrap-heaps of destroyed rusting tanks, troop carriers and artillery guns formed a patchwork across the desert and along the ‘Highway of Death’ to Basra.
Mapping the tower positions was done with the GPS systems of the military helicopters. I was assigned a Lynx helicopter to do my work and, when attending meetings at Saddam’s Basra palace, I had to travel there via the Shatt al Arab in a British Commando Rigid Raider. If I had occasion to move on a road or across the desert, I had an armed escort in three trucks and two snatch wagons while I was ensconced in a heavily armoured saloon with 2” armoured glass windows. It surely was a reversal of roles that my relations had with the same army a few decades earlier.
When I was asked to go to Kuwait on an SAS course to learn how to deal with being kidnapped and how to resist robust interrogation, I decided that enough was enough and came home in a blacked-out RAF VC-10 troop transport. This was at the end of Ramadan and the insurgents decided to celebrate in appropriate style when they announced that they would blow this particular aircraft from the sky.
My work in the post-war restoration of electricity systems was taken a step further when I was asked to go to Belgrade to help restore the electricity system there and in Serbia after the NATO bombing raids. Then I was asked to go to Sarajevo and Srebernicska to do the same in Bosnia after the famous siege and, finally, I was asked to go to the Lebanon and the West Bank to help restore the systems there.
I felt that I was the international bomber chaser (even as a young boy in Clonakilty, I gloried in the nickname ‘Bomber’). In these places, I chaired meetings with groups who had been recently or still were at war with one another. After my trade union meetings at home, I had no problems with these encounters.
Dan Coakley CEng FIEI was conferred with a BE (Elect) by UCC in 1960 and worked with ESB until 1996. He was an electrical power consultant for ESBI in Ukraine, Crimea, Zambia and Iraq. He then worked for the UN in Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, India, Bosnia and New York, followed by freelance work in Serbia, Bosnia, West Bank, Southern Iraq and Lebanon.
In 1998/99, Coakley was technical manager of the Electricity Sector of the UN Oil for Food Programme in Iraq and controlled an annual budget of $4 billion. In 2004/5, he was invited back to Iraq to help reconstruct the electrical high voltage grid supplying the strategic Southern Iraq Oil Fields so essential to the world economy.
Coakley has written an account of his time in Iraq entitled Mr Dan and the Dams of Kurdistan – A Corkman in Saddam’s Iraq. The book is now on Amazon as a Kindle e-book. The iPad/iTunes versions will be available shortly.http://www.engineersjournal.ie/2014/07/17/an-irish-engineer-in-saddams-iraq/http://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Dan-1.pnghttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Dan-1-300x300.pngElecelectricity,energy,hydro,infrastructure,telecoms