US officials said on Sunday that increasing Iraq's electricity generating capacity through facilities such as the Khor Az Zubayr site near the southern city of Basra is crucial to American efforts to encourage Iraqis to turn their backs on violence.

Among the most infuriating problems for Iraqis nearly three years after the US-led invasion is the lack of regular electricity to run lights and home appliances, such as air conditioners during Iraq's summer, when the country swelters under temperatures soaring beyond 49 degrees centigrade.

Of 425 electricity-related projects, only 300 are expected to be completed before the more than $18 billion approved by Congress in November 2003 for reconstruction in Iraq runs out, US officials have said.

Generators

The capital, Baghdad, is among the country's worst-off areas, with most streets unlit at night and many of the city's seven million people relying on generators.

Iraq's incessant violence absorbs
as much as 22% of project costs

Iraqis in Basra, the country's second-largest city 550km southeast of Baghdad, have an average of 12 hours a day of power already, up from much lower prewar levels, as a result of the new plant.

The US spent $123 million to install two 125 megawatt gas-generated turbines that were bought before the war under the United Nations Oil for Food programme.

The turbines began operating in late December at the site of a rusting Saddam-era power plant in Khor Az Zubayr, about 30km south of Basra.

The plant is estimated to add electric power equivalent for what is needed for more than 220,000 households and significant additional energy for the upcoming summer.

US authorities have said maintenance of Iraqi plants was as important as installing new facilities.

Winning support

Colonel Larry McCallister, the US military official in charge of reconstruction projects in southern Iraq, said giving Iraqis more electricity was crucial to winning local support and defeating violence.

McCallister acknowledged that attacks had reduced the number of projects he and other US officials hoped to bring on line with the funds for reconstruction.

Audit reports released recently by the special inspector-general for Iraq reconstruction found that attacks have forced the cancellation of more than 60% of water and sanitation projects in Iraq, in part because American intelligence failed to predict the violence.

Iraq's incessant violence absorbs as much as 22% of project costs, more than double the 9% originally budgeted for.