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December 1, 2005

Iraq: So Much Oil, and So Little

by Jim Lobe

BAGHDAD - Before the recent war in Iraq, the sanctions decreased access to many resources, but gas was still plentiful and affordable. Since the invasion in 2003, gas and kerosene have been in short supply.

Iraq has the second-largest oil deposits in the world, but Iraqis are forced to sit in excruciatingly long lines, waiting for a meager amount of petrol.

Under Saddam Hussein's regime, the Oil-for-Food program provided quotas for Iraq's oil production. Iraq was able to meet, and illegally exceed, those limits.

Saddam's regime was able to maintain tight security at oil drilling sites and pipelines, so supply was uninterrupted. Fuel cost approximately three cents a liter (about 10 cents a gallon). Kerosene was even cheaper: a reliable electricity grid decreased the need for home generators, so the demand for kerosene was low.

"We used to get gas very easily, and we used to get kerosene very easily during the winter time," says Hussein Rudha, a taxi driver in Baghdad. "We didn't even have a problem with the rations. Even the prices for those materials were pretty cheap."

After the fall of Saddam's regime in April 2003, the security situation in Iraq swiftly deteriorated. In addition to the looting of the Iraqi National Museum and ministry buildings, the pipelines carrying Iraq's oil were sabotaged more than 200 times.

The recurring acts of sabotage have greatly depleted Iraq's local supplies of oil. Much of the oil that is produced is controlled by foreign companies, who were contracted to manage the oil early in the war.

Iraqis believe that the fuel produced in Iraq is exported, and the fuel available for use by Iraqis is imported from Kuwait or other oil-producing nations in the region.

The shortage has dramatically changed daily life in Iraq.. Baghdad residents may only drive on certain days: those whose license plates end in even numbers may drive on even numbered dates and those ending in odd numbers may drive on days with odd numbers.

Some of the wealthier families own two cars with different plate numbers, enabling them to drive any day.

Drivers can only buy fuel on the days they can drive. This restriction, combined with the long gas queues, means that some people can only drive every third or fifth day. "I have spent 13 hours in a gas queue once, waiting from the morning, and when it was getting late, an American patrol came and told me it was time for me to go home because the curfew would be starting soon. So I wasted the whole day," said Iraqi journalist Isham Rashid.

Waiting in the queue not only wastes time, it can be dangerous. One day I was videotaping the gas queue, and Omar, my assistant, was taking photos. Our driver, Hussein, suddenly told me to put the camera down. I finished recording and placed it beneath the dashboard in time to see an American tank rumble by, almost close enough to touch.

Frequent American army patrols outside the city and along the highways are a source of tension and anxiety for Iraqis. "In the long gas lines, we are afraid we will be injured by a car bomb attacking us, or maybe killed by an exchange of gunfire. Or the driver will have to stay in line for one day without being able to work," says Khulood, who lives in Baghdad as a refugee.

The even and odd restriction and the long gas queues have a particularly huge impact on the employment situation. Drivers are some of the only Iraqis still able to find work in Baghdad.

Having lost their previous professional positions or the ability to pursue their education, many members of Iraq's middle class have pressed their mid-range to luxury vehicles into transporting those lucky enough to have found gainful employment. "I work as a taxi driver; I couldn't continue my education because the conditions are so hard and because of the financial situation," said the taxi driver Hussein, who is in his twenties.

Now kerosene has also become scarce and expensive. The failing electricity grid has created a large market for kerosene-powered generators. The gas shortages and the long lines mean some families cannot obtain gas to keep their lights on or their houses warm in the winter.

"When we came here, my child was nine days old and we didn't have anything to keep her warm, so we used to cover her with a lot of blankets to keep her warm," said Khulood..

The need for fuel for transportation and generators has fostered a large black market. These black market sources of gasoline are readily apparent in Baghdad.

There are places in the shadows of buildings where men in their twenties and thirties recline in the shade, seating themselves on makeshift chairs and propping their feet up on gasoline containers.

On the highways and the outer neighborhoods of Baghdad it is easy to find young boys sitting on similar canisters in the sun or in the shade of a date tree. The more ambitious of these boys take pains to flag down passing vehicles, waving at them with makeshift funnels constructed from two-liter soda bottles.

Once, while out on the road, our driver ran low on fuel. We stopped for one of these boys selling fuel. After filling the tank, we tried to pay with a large bill. The boy did not have change, so he ran to the nearby gas station to get smaller bills. As we drove away, I saw him return to the petrol station with his empty canister, doubtless to refill for the next needy customer.

As we sit again in the line waiting for petrol, another American tank passes, and Hussein makes a statement that seems increasingly true in the new Iraq. "This is the new constitution."

Omar Abdullah contributed to this report.

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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