Tue, Dec 14, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Iraq suffers from serious fuel crisis

THE GUARDIAN , Baghdad

A British soldier of the Black Watch standing guard yesterday stands by his fuel tanker while the convoy of vehicles he is part of takes a brief rest before continuing north to their new area of operations as part of Operation Bracken.

PHOTO: AFP

Baghdad is in the grip of the most serious fuel crisis since the war, forcing drivers to spend more than a day waiting for gasoline and underlining the government's struggle to maintain even basic services in the weeks ahead of elections.

In the past two weeks lines are often hundreds of cars long, and disputes between drivers and police have turned violent. In one incident last week at a gas station in Yarmouk, an affluent area of western Baghdad, a police major was shot dead by a man in the line.

Government officials have blamed attacks on insurgents for a sharp fuel shortage in a country that has the world's second largest supply of oil.

But gasoline station managers say the problems stem more from electricity shortages that prevent pumps from working, higher demand from Iraqis who rely on gasoline not just for their cars but to run generators for their homes, and from the dramatic increase in the number of cars on the road since the war last year. A new night-time curfew in Baghdad has also meant gas stations no longer stay open late.

A black market has rapidly sprung up with hawkers on street corners selling gasoline for up to 1,000 dinars a liter, compared with the official station price of 20 dinars.

"Since I was a young man until now I never saw a crisis like this," said one manager at a gas station in Yarmouk, who was too afraid to give his name.

Last week, as drivers formed a line five kilometers long at his station, an argument broke out between a black marketeer who was trying to fill a 25-liter container and a police major, Hazem Abdal Hassan, who was guarding the station.

"The police officer stopped him from filling his container but then there was a fight," the station manager said. "Suddenly the man pulled out a pistol and shot the policeman dead in the neck."

Police officers nearby arrested the man but the station manager said the police were frequently corrupt.

"The police were supposed to be organizing the line and stopping the black market but they just filled their own cars and filled jerry cans with gasoline and sold them to the hawkers," he said.

There was a less severe fuel crisis in the months after the war last year and the government eventually managed to ease the lines by limiting the amount of fuel each driver could buy at a time.

But now the return of the crisis has left Iraqis increasingly frustrated at a time when electricity shortages are worsening. Some homes in the capital receive only a few hours' electricity a day.

"I've been here since yesterday and I'm still in line," said one driver stuck in a long line in Alwiya Street, in central Baghdad.

"Life is just the same as it was before the war, only the faces have changed. No one cares," the driver said.

US officials privately admit that the fuel crisis could trigger widespread unrest before the election due on Jan. 30. "If the current situation does not improve quickly, public confidence in the government may deteriorate significantly," one diplomat wrote in an internal memo obtained by Reuters.

Iraq's oil minister, Thamir al-Ghadhban, said extra security was being laid on to protect convoys bringing fuel into the capital.

"We are facing determined foes and an unprecedented threat. They want to deprive Baghdad of fuel to create a political crisis," he told reporters over the weekend.

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