BAGHDAD, Iraq—Abu Mohammed is a slight man without prospects of beefing up. His 8-year-old son is barely tall enough to lean his skinny frame against the rear of their old car.
But from dawn to dusk two or three times a week they push the rusty vehicle up an incline, one slow car length at a time, to buy gasoline they can scarcely afford.
Their Sisyphean shove to the front of the line repeats itself throughout the week so Abu Mohammed can drive a gypsy cab around Baghdad.
If he makes $20 in a day ferrying his fellow Iraqis around the battered capital, $18 of that—23,000 Iraqi dinars—will go for gasoline.
"If God provides," he said, "I might have some petrol left for my generator."
In this country with some of the world's greatest oil reserves, people have little sympathy for Americans cringing at $3-a-gallon gasoline. They're too occupied trying find their own gasoline and too worried about whether they can afford it.
At a licensed station, a gallon of gasoline—probably watered down—goes for $1.22, but that's 10 times what it cost before the war, and Iraqis make far less money than Americans do. The price will certainly climb as summer sets in.
For those unwilling or unable to endure the all-day lines in blistering heat, the black market offers a quicker fill-up—for three times the price.
The result overwhelms a bus system ferrying cash-strapped commuters and prompts the assessment of each trip around the bomb-and-bullet-riddled city not just in terms of safety but also affordability.
A schoolteacher, for instance, might fork out half her $130 monthly salary at the fuel pump. That gets her just enough gas for short trips around town and some fuel for the family generator, which provides a few extra hours of electricity a night.
The situation is especially maddening to Iraqis because they know they live in an oil-rich country.
Oil and Gas Journal estimates Iraq's oil reserves at about 115 billion barrels, third in the world behind Saudi Arabia and Canada. Because much of the country remains unexplored for its petroleum potential, some analysts think another 100 billion barrels might be pumped from the Iraqi landscape eventually.
Production peaked in 1979 at 3.7 million barrels a day. That dropped dramatically over the next several decades as Iraq became a pariah on the world stage: the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, the first Persian Gulf War, the subsequent U.N. sanctions and the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Today, Iraq's oil output hovers at around 2 million barrels a day.
A Government Accountability Office report recently estimated that 100,000 to 300,000 barrels a day have been unaccounted for over the last four years, translating to a daily loss of as much as $15 million. The losses were blamed on corruption and smuggling.
All that oil appears to have been siphoned to somewhere other than the streets of Baghdad.
To save fuel and ease traffic jams, which make easy targets for terrorist bombings, the government has imposed odd-even regulations on the days a car can be on the street, depending on its license plate number.
For a cabdriver such as Abu Mohammed, that can mean profits wiped out in an instant if a cop spots him working on the wrong day.
When Mazin Mehdi cruises the boulevards looking for fares, particularly in the morning, he feels he's doing something to keep people safer.
"The streets are really empty then," said the 33-year-old father of two. "That can make people who are out easy targets" for kidnappers.
He keeps an eye trained on the gas stations, too, hoping to find a spot where the wait might be only five hours.
Talib Hassan owns a BMW and a Buick, but he drives them only to the gas station, to fetch fuel for his generators. Because gas cans are prohibited—to head off chaos caused by people filling their cars, then multiple cans—he has to siphon the fuel from his cars once he returns home, where he has four children who are all students.
"They all need electricity for comfort and a quiet atmosphere to study," said the 52-year-old engineer. "Their final examinations are coming. And with the hot weather and the shortage of power, we have no choice but to use the generators all the time."
Safa Khalifa lost his job at an electronics company after a mortar attack hit the company. So he opened a small shop in his neighborhood, which needs two generators running constantly.
He cringes at every small rise in gas prices, which chews away at his modest profits.
"This fuel crisis is not new," he said. "And it won't be the last one."
(Hussein and Kadhim are McClatchy special correspondents. McClatchy correspondent Scott Canon in Baghdad contributed to this report.)