Iraq's hours-long gas lines fuel rage, overshadow elections

Sunday, January 23, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Taxi driver Raed Ali sleeps in his cab in streets that crackle with gunfire after dark, risking robbery or death to get a good spot at daybreak in one of the gasoline lines that wind through Baghdad's muddy alleys and gridlocked thoroughfares.

The irony of fuel shortages in one of the world's leading sources of petroleum is high on the list of hassles facing Iraqis, siphoning off much of the excitement over next week's national elections.

Officials blame the crunch on attacks on pipelines, ambushes of fuel convoys, a flourishing black market and crumbling infrastructure in Iraq's petroleum industry.

The shortages raise tempers and lower morale among a people already enduring car bombs, gunbattles, kidnappings, and assassinations.

"Along with other problems -- oil and electricity -- I feel like I'm living in another world. Instead of being caught up with the elections, for example, I'm busy with these problems," Ali said.

The 28-year-old cabbie spent a cold night worrying about the wife and two children he had to leave unprotected -- and feeling humiliated by his life of struggle.

By midmorning he had reached a gas pump at the end of a chain of cars snaking through three miles or more of trash-strewn passageways.

Often he's not as lucky and misses an entire workday, a sacrifice he says has cut his once $18 daily income in half.

Frustrations over the fuel problem recently sparked days of protests outside the Oil Ministry and other government buildings in southern cities.

U.S. commanders acknowledge such anger plays into the hands of militant recruiters.

Soaring demand has worsened matters. An influx of tens of thousands of cars per month from abroad followed the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, which controlled the market.

Heavy subsidies that keep pump prices at around five U.S. cents a gallon -- another Saddam legacy -- have created a thriving black market. People buy gas at low government prices and resell it, sometimes at 20 times the price.

Children dot sidewalks and the edges of desert highways with jerry cans of black market fuel and funnels. The bootleg gas is of poor quality and can damage an engine.

Some in the gas lines were nostalgic for the order Saddam imposed. Others theorized that the Americans and the new Iraqi leaders wanted to cripple people's mobility as a precaution ahead of this month's elections.

Meanwhile, Ali says he'll continue to risk camping out in the streets for gas. "I have to face this humiliation and danger to feed my family."

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