They cling like rat's nests along the sides of buildings, droop from poles and criss-cross streets and alleyways, CBS News correspondent Allen Pizzey says in an exclusive report.
Untangling the jumble and getting power flowing to everyone is a key wartime goal on which the U.S. has already lavished $4.2 billion. When President Bush announced the so-called "surge" of troops, he said the initiative must go "beyond military operations" and ordinary Iraqis "must see visible improvements."
But they won't see lights at the flip of a switch until 2013, six years from now and 10 years after the war began.
That's how long U.S. officials say it will take to fix the electricity, a disturbing timeline given that the restoration of basic and essential services is seen as a key element in gaining the confidence and support of normal Iraqis.
The challenge is epic.
The man in charge, Brigadier Gen. Michael J. Walsh of the Army Corps of Engineers, put it this way: "I've been an army engineer for 29 years, and this is the most complex environment I've ever worked on. It's like playing three-dimensional chess in the dark with someone shooting at you."
Even the successes are an ongoing challenge. By way of illustration, the general took CBS News to the Qudas power plant outside Baghdad. Built to have its turbines run on gas, the station will eventually, hopefully, put out between 200 and 260 megawatts, enough to power between 180,000 and 235,000 homes.
For the moment, however, the turbines that are functioning have to make due with crude oil pumped in from a field about a kilometer away. That means they have to run at less than optimal output and must be taken off line for cleaning more often. If one turbine breaks down, as it did recently, the problem becomes massive in every sense of the word. The only place some of the huge parts can be fixed is Holland.
Breakdowns, of course, are not something consumers want to hear about, although they are used to them. Power supplies across the country range from up to 20 hours a day in the Sulimaniyeh area in the north to as little as six hours a day in Baghdad. Many homes in the capital rely on local generators for power, production facilities so precious that many have armed guards to protect them. That's an easier job than protecting the national grid.
"There are 17,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) of cable," Walsh said, "so if an insurgency wanted to disrupt the power, they can certainly take a tower down, which is what they have been doing in the past, taking the tower down. But there's also other reasons: just thievery; knock a tower down, melt down the scrap metal and sell it for cable and things of that sort. So it's a very fragile system and hard to protect."
It's even more dangerous to maintain. According to official figures, insurgents last year killed 235 workers, kidnapped 311 and wounded 226.
Maybe that's why corruption is also rearing its ugly head. Haidar Abbas, who owns a small restaurant in Baghdad that serves shawarma to anyone who is willing to be frisked for weapons and suicide vests before entering, said Ministry of Electricity workers told him they could guarantee up to eight hours of power a day instead of the sporadic supplies he was getting, for a price. "They wanted me to pay 1,500 dinars (about $2) a day," he claimed, adding, "that shows me there is no problem with power. The problem is money."
In fact, nationwide the distribution of power has improved, and is again approaching pre-war levels. But demand has also gone up by 70 percent. It's a version of "can't seem to win for losing."