By Ken Griffin
Special to American Forces Press Service
Nov. 10, 2008 - Only a year ago, reliable electricity in Sab al Bour, Iraq, was just a dream. The city, just north of Baghdad along the Grand Canal, was practically deserted, with only diehard residents and pockets of insurgents sticking around in the dark. As of Nov. 8, residents in this small agricultural city are literally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, according to Sheik Nadeem Hatem al-Tamimi, an influential leader in the area. Outside the city's new electrical substation, the sheik spoke, both literally and metaphorically, about the town's emergence from darkness.
"We had evil forces trying to kill Iraqis, ... and they destroyed all essential services," he said, describing insurgent attempts to control the city and population. "Today, we are calling for unity between all people of Iraq."
The top coalition forces leader in the Taji area said he believes peace and stability start with electricity, and he was at the event to congratulate Sab al Bour on its achievement.
"Reliable and sustainable access to power allows businesses to flourish, water to crops, schools to educate our children and light on the dark nights of the Iraqi winter" said Army Col. Todd McCaffrey, commander of the 25th Infantry Division's 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team. "Sab al Bour is now postured to accept the return of its rightful residents."
The rightful residents McCaffrey referred to are the large portion of Sab al Bour's citizens who fled due to violence and lack of essential services. The internally displaced people now are returning at a rate of up to 50 families per week.
If the substation opening meant only more electricity, it would be meaningful enough. But the impact of this substation doesn't stop with keeping the lights on. It will have a direct and immediate positive effect on other essential services in the area.
First, there'll be more drinkable water. Purification stations rely on electricity to produce potable water.
Even more significantly, irrigation pumps in the area will work harder and longer. Soon, passing helicopters will notice large swaths of farmland turn from a dirty brown to a lush green, all thanks to the substation, said Army Capt. Mark Gillman, the brigade's engineer in charge of electrical reconstruction.
"The pump station, due to power improvements, will irrigate thousands of acres of farmland with little interruption from blackouts," said Gillman, who provided oversight and expertise for the otherwise Iraqi-run project.
Because the Sab al Bour area depends heavily on agriculture, the local economy should get a noticeable boost. Gillman, who is from Las Vegas, explained how all of the intertwined projects, which depend on electricity, are part of a "tailored network."
"It started with the Ministry of Electricity, which brought up to 30 people in here at a time. They really set the pace for the other ministries," Gillman said. "There was a lot of government of Iraq support for this small, mostly Sunni community."
Attendees marked the substation's opening with a ribbon cutting, a tour, and then singing and dancing. As they celebrated their victory and announced the lights were on to stay, they proclaimed they could move on to other goals.
"Now we will ask for other things – forgiveness and unity," said the last speaker at the event. "Let's now bring together all Sunni and Shiia in Iraq."
(Ken Griffin works in Multinational Division Baghdad with the 25th Infantry Division's 2nd SBCT Stryker Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs Office.)