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Iraqis fuming over gas shortages

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Gas, gas, gas.

People in Iraq are clamoring for it these days. Although it holds the world's second largest oil reserves, the country's everyday fuel supplies are scarce, creating a widespread crisis as Iraq struggles to recover from war.

Shortages of oil for everything from vehicles and turbines to generators and stoves have been reported in most of Iraq's population centers. The squeeze has led to waits of as long as 24 hours at gas stations, higher prices, a surge in black marketing and, in some cities, rationing and violence.

In Baghdad, at least one shooting in lines at a gas station stemmed from a dispute over fuel. And looters have been caught trying to steal fuel from stations.

U.S. military officials list impaired production at damaged domestic refineries, chaos in distribution networks and the impact of U.N. sanctions on imports among the causes for the shortages. With help from surrounding countries, they are working to deliver fuel to avert large-scale civil unrest.

"This is not exclusively a gas problem," Lt. Gen. William Wallace, the commanding general of the U.S. Army's V Corps, told his staff. "It's a problem that leads to civil disorder, which leads to other problems of force protection, security and stability."

Wallace's fears about civil disorder could be realized if more and more Iraqis have experiences like the one taxi driver Yusuf Mudaffar had one day last week in the northern city of Mosul. Mosul's stores are open and life on the streets is relatively calm, but the city ran out of propane and then gasoline before more arrived.

Mudaffar spent the night in his taxi while he waited in line at a gas station.

"I've been waiting since 3 p.m. yesterday," Mudaffar said. "The only time I've moved forward today is because some people decided to go home."

Around him, drivers in a range of motley vehicles—most of them orange-and-white taxicabs but also fuel-efficient Volkswagens and gas-guzzling Cadillacs—sat, waited and fumed. Some criticized American forces, whom they viewed as creating the fuel shortage.

"Why does Iraq have so much oil but all these lines?" demanded another taxi driver, Amr Abdul-Wahab. "Before the Americans came, it didn't take us a minute to buy."

"This is intentional," said Jamil Ali Ismael, also a taxi driver. "They are doing this to occupy the attention of the people, so they will not focus it on them."

American officials who are overseeing the fuel crisis in Mosul said they were working to resolve it. They received 15 trucks containing a total of 10,000 bottles of propane gas from Kuwait on Friday, and expect 30,000 more bottles and nearly 160,000 gallons of unleaded fuel to arrive there soon from Turkey.

U.S. officials have kept prices in Mosul low and have banned bootleg street sales of gasoline. Each driver is allowed to buy six and a half gallons, about a half-tank, for 500 dinars, about 25 cents. As Iraqi attendants pump the gas, U.S. soldiers direct traffic, keep order and enforce a rule limiting service to cars with odd-numbered license plates on odd-numbered days and even-numbered license plates on even-numbered days.

Rationing is also in force in Kirkuk, according to military officials, prompting some residents to drive as far as Tikrit, 60 miles away, in search of fuel. Najaf curtain salesman Refat Umareh pays $1 more a gallon to have unleaded gasoline ferried from Baghdad, two hours to the north. The cost of his fuel has increased 12-fold since the war, to $1.20 a gallon.

"What can I do? I have no choice but to put up with this until things settle down," he said.

Prices on the black market are high everywhere. Outside Mosul, where young men sell fuel from 5-gallon jugs along the highway to Irbil, a tank costs about $15, beyond the reach of most Iraqis.

The threat of looters and bandits has forced gas stations in the southern city of Basra to reduce their hours to daytime only, said Samed Mohsen, a Basra gas station manager. After dusk, dozens of Iraqi men stand on the roadside and sell five times as much gasoline as the stations—though their prices are many times higher—since they offer relief from the long lines.

Qusai, a jobless military-doctor-turned-black-marketer who refused to give his last name, said he had sold about 20 gallons of gasoline each of the past four days. He buys it from stations where he pays two-and-a-half times the regular rate.

"This is not the best way to make money, but it's the easiest way," he said.

Gas stations in Basra are unique: More than half are open for business, because the local refinery and the local ministry that runs both are open. Dozens of cars jam the lots at any given time.

U.S. Marines say the fuel shortage is the only potential flashpoint in the otherwise quiet southern region, where propane supplies are running low.

Propane also is scarce in Baghdad. That allows scavengers to drive up the price of cooking fuel, especially for businessmen such as restaurant manager Mohammed Faruk. He said a canister of propane, which usually cost 250 dinars, about 8 cents, cost 80 times as much on the black market.

Faruk's Coconut restaurant, in an upscale Baghdad neighborhood, usually would be filled with residents after prayers on Friday afternoons. But because of the fuel shortage, it was closed most of last week.

After finding five canisters of propane on the black market, enough to fire up one of his two rotisseries, Faruk reopened for the day Friday. The restaurant usually serves nearly three dozen dishes, but Faruk cut back to five.

The propane shortage is making meal preparation at home equally difficult. In the middle-class Baghdad neighborhood of Saydi, Fakrya Mohamad isn't preparing as much meat for her household of 22, which includes her seven sons and their families. Her sons recently bought 100 gallons of kerosene, about a one-month supply, and stored it in barrels on the patio.

To keep the kerosene odor out of the house, she cooks on a patio, past the idle propane stove in her kitchen. On Friday, she started cooking lunch at 6 a.m. since kerosene burners don't burn as hot as propane

American military officials estimate that Iraqis use 4 million gallons of gasoline and 5,000 tons of propane a day. They have formed Task Force RIO—Restore Iraqi Oil—to get help on the way.

"We've got to get in front of this thing or else we'll be chasing our tails," Wallace urged his staff.


(Gerlin and Shaffer report for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Dion Nissenbaum of the San Jose Mercury News in Baghdad, Tim Potter of The Wichita Eagle in Baghdad and Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Basra contributed to this article.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq-fuel