AL-QUDS PLANT, Iraq, Nov 14 (Reuters) - For many Iraqis, progress in rebuilding a nation reduced to rubble by years of war and destruction is measured by the flick of a switch.
Electricity has become a central, stubbornly negative, bellwether in assessing how far the country has come since the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.
Iraq's electricity system is improving, but supply still meets only about half of demand, shaping how ordinary people go about their lives and hobbling efforts to rebuild a shattered economy even as violence across the country drops sharply.
Since 2003, goals to improve power supplies have been rolled back again and again, and only about 30 percent of Iraqis today feel they have enough electricity, the U.S. government says.
Iraqi and foreign officials say rebuilding a power grid crippled by years of sanctions, mismanagement and damage from air strikes could take years, especially as electricity demand soars in step with a more open economy.
"One of the regular questions people ask is (why) the most powerful nation on earth has been here for five years, but the lights can't stay on," said Brigadier Hamish McNinch, a senior British military engineer working on electricity in Iraq.
"To completely rebuild the whole infrastructure, that has to come from Iraq. It's a moon landing sort of scale, because it's a huge country and it needs an awful lot of power," he said.
Shortages hamper the economy as well as ordinary life. Haidar Noor, a grocer in Hilla, south of Baghdad, said power shortages have forced him to reduce stocks of perishable goods.
"In July and August, I had to throw out meat and dairy products every two days because the power was out for long stretches of time. It's killing my profit."
Across Iraqi cities, spider webs of colourful power lines are clustered around every corner, connecting homes to a network of private power generators that have become a lifeline.
For Abdul-Ghani al-Dabbagh, a surgeon in Hilla, relying on erratic state power with the lives of his patients on the line is not an option. He has increased his fees to buy fuel for the generator sitting on the roof of his clinic.
Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, efforts to improve power supplies have been hobbled by attacks on pipelines and transmission works, and violence targeting government workers. Years of drought have also hurt hydroelectric plants.
The U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki hopes to end regular power shortages by 2012 and triple effective power generation capacity from 5,500 megawatts today.
Yet even meeting current demand will cost Iraq at least $5.5 billion, and will require convincing foreign investors to set aside their concerns about security in a still-violent country.
At the al-Quds power plant north of Baghdad, workers in blue jumpsuits teem around giant, General Electric turbines that will, once they go online in coming months, help power 180,000 households in the Iraqi capital.
The $170 million expansion effort at al-Quds is the last big nuts-and-bolts power project the United States will fund in Iraq after spending some $5 billion for the sector since 2003.
Iraq itself spent close to $1 billion on power investments from 2005-2007, but has faced bureaucratic bottlenecks in spending much larger investment budgets for electricity.
Officials acknowledge progress is painfully slow, especially with demand that has exploded since 2003, when a more open economy allowed Iraqis to import power-hungry appliances.
"If people reduce power consumption by switching off heaters and water-heaters this winter, they will have a steady supply," said Aziz Sultan, spokesman for the Electricity Ministry.
Optimal natural gas fuel is still unavailable and most power plants run on crude oil or heavy fuel oil, which can cause parts to fail. According to Hussein Attiya, an Iraqi engineer, workers have yet to fully shake a tradition of poor maintenance.
Under Saddam, facilities were pushed to the brink and operated without downtime for proper maintenance.
"It was 'run or don't live anymore,'" said Al Townsand, a veteran U.S. power mechanic working in Baghdad, describing the Saddam-era culture of keeping generators running at all times.
The government is scrambling to make noticeable improvements by next summer. It has also signed preliminary major deals with GE and Siemens for new generation equipment.
Foreign electricity officials say the government is making strides in protecting electricity works and moving away from a system that fed power to Baghdad at the expense of other parts of the country. But that has fed discontent in the capital.
The project at al-Quds reflects the difficulties that Iraq will face in increasing its power supply in years to come.
Across the plant from the brand-new GE turbines, another turbine -- installed under Saddam but well within its operating life span -- sits idle. The $20-million equipment was disabled several months ago when an equipment failure was compounded by errors by Iraqi operators. It may never work again.
Such a needless loss, when people across Iraq are desperate for power, "was a sad thing. It was a bad night," Townsand said.
(Additional reporting by Alaa Habib in Basra; Editing by Charles Dick)
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