Iraqis battle long lines, frustration in daily search for gas

Friday, May 9, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- When Salah Alwiha got to the gas station, the line snaked around the block. Seven hours later, when he finally pushed his car to the front, the news was enough to make him scream: The pumps were empty.

Although Iraq has the world's second-largest proven oil reserves after Saudi Arabia, residents of this chaotic capital are spending long, sweaty hours in the hammering sun every day in a frustrating -- and often futile -- search for fuel.

"I didn't go to work all day," Alwiha shouted at the back of yet another line, down the road, this one three cars wide. "What kind of life is this?"

Black market prices

Many have given up on gas stations and turned to black-market vendors who line the streets with jerry cans, in some cases setting up in front of official outlets.

"I don't have the time to wait four or five hours to fill my car," snapped Dalia Siab, waving toward a line of cars extending as far as the eye could see. So, despite the higher prices demanded by illegal vendors, she has turned to them.

To help ease shortages, U.S. and Iraqi officials are planning to start importing gasoline and cooking gas from neighboring countries. Details are being worked out, but the United States is expected to foot the bill. U.S. soldiers are also distributing free gas and diesel in some areas.

Iraqi officials trade blame for the chaos. Distributors say they aren't getting enough gasoline from the refineries, while refineries say distributors aren't getting what they do produce to the stations.

Baghdad's main Daura refinery processed 110,000 barrels of oil a day before the war. Production is now less than half that, and outside the facility a banner greets fuel-seeking visitors: "No gas at the gas factory."

But refinery officials say the gasoline that is available doesn't always get to the stations. Some tankers used to transport the fuel were stolen or stripped of parts by looters. Others were hit by coalition bombers and are now charred wrecks.

The tankers that are running sometimes stop by the side of the road to sell their gasoline instead of delivering it to stations.

Sameer Asad, director general of the national Oil Productions Distribution Co., acknowledges the problems and says he is trying to ration gasoline until production returns to normal.

Only a fraction of Baghdad's gas stations are open these days, and they receive only one or two tankers a day. When the gas runs out, the stations close and the black market flourishes.

One afternoon this week, a teenager with a towel wrapped around his head against the sun poured gas into Siab's tank through a hose while other cars waited to fuel up at the station behind her. She paid him $5.25 -- about 15 times the official price of 4 cents a gallon.

U.S. forces trying to restore order to the chaotic city try to discourage such profiteering.

"We tell them they can't fill their jerry cans. But people fill up their cars and then siphon off the gas into jerry cans," said Sgt. Christopher Francis of the 82nd Airborne Division, guarding the station in front of which Siab bought her gas.

In some cases, soldiers fire shots into jerry cans and cut up hoses to prevent them being used again. Members of the 82nd Airborne Division are confiscating the cans and distributing them to hospitals, police stations and fire departments.

As frustration mounts, tempers explode. One man shot another Wednesday over a fuel dispute at a Baghdad gas station, said a senior officer with the Army's V Corps.

Last week, eight people died in an explosion as a crowd siphoned fuel out of a leaky tank. And when an oil tanker finally arrived to replenish one station this week, the place was so choked with angry drivers that it couldn't get to the pumps.

But what gas stations really need, their managers say, is better security.

Khalil Ibrahim's station had plenty of gas Wednesday, and two generators to keep his pumps working round the clock. But he said his employees are afraid to work at night, when automatic rifle fire from bandits and looters crackles across the city.

"We need police," said Alwiha, still waiting to refuel his car. "If the American army really wants to help the people of Iraq, they need to put police at every station -- and organize the line."

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