Waiting on empty: Amid dire gas shortage, tempers fray

 

IRAQ ADDIS
A line of cars stretches from a gas station in Baghdad. Black market gas is readily available along many streets in the city, but it is much more expensive. (Noah Addis)

BAGHDAD — Omran Mussa slumped in his car, sweat beading on his mustache under a withering afternoon sun.

For three hours, he had waited in line to buy gas, burning precious fuel each time he cranked the engine to advance 15 feet. Now he was two short car-lengths from the pumps.

He was about to start his car again when the station’s employees walked down the line, waving their arms. There was no more gas to sell. Mussa, 33, banged his steering wheel in frustration.

“This is the fourth day,” he shouted, thrusting four fingers into the air. “Four days in a row I made it to the front and they ran out. I have all the bad luck.”

In a city of dire shortages, the most visible may also be the most ironic. Baghdad, the capital of a country that sits atop the world’s second-largest oil reserves, is running out of gasoline.

In scenes reminiscent of the U.S. energy crisis of the 1970s, gas lines form before dawn, clogging the streets with rows of idle cars, sometimes three abreast, as far as the eye can see.

Some lines go on for a mile, wrapping around corners and curves, a raggedy procession of gimpy Datsuns, Volkswagens and Fiats that date to the early and mid-1980s.

Unlike Mussa, most drivers won’t waste fuel by starting their engines to move ahead. They get out and push. No one dares use the air conditioner, hungry on fuel and prone to overheating temperamental old motors.

“It’s like this every day since the war started,” said Ammar Saadi, a 21-year-old taxi driver. “Some days I’m so angry I go home shouting, and my wife has to calm me down. Then I have to get up and do it all over again.”

The scarcity of gas, the consequence of limited production at Iraq’s oil fields, is among the top complaints of Baghdad’s 4.5 million residents, who are also suffering through shortages of electricity, water, food and medicine.

IRAQ ADDIS
Two men fill their vehicle with gas bought on the black  market in Baghdad. (Noah Addis)

On any gas line in the city, men cluster together while they wait, grumbling over what they call U.S. greed for Iraqi oil and the ineptitude of the American-led team administering the country since the downfall of Saddam Hussein.

Those with enough money avoid the lines by buying on the thriving black market, in which fuel-splashed entrepreneurs sell gas from bottles, buckets and drums at roadside stands. But the markup is usually more than 500 percent, far too rich for many Baghdadis.

So they sit and stew, growing edgier by the day.

“You can see it in the people. Their patience is wearing out,” said Safaa Falih, 18, who arrived in a gas line at 5 a.m. yesterday, two hours after it began to form.

Eight hours later, he remained a half-mile back because the station had not yet received its daily shipment. Behind him, the line of cars stretched more than a mile.

“They might get to where I am tomorrow,” Falih said, squinting toward those in the rear. “I wouldn’t want to be in the car with them.”

Dathar Al-Khashab preaches patience, promising that things will improve in the months ahead.

Al-Khashab is the general manager of the Al-Daura refinery, responsible for providing gasoline, propane, lubricating oils and other products to Baghdad and its suburbs. Located on the capital’s southern edge, the refinery is Iraq’s third-largest, capable of processing 110,000 barrels of oil a day.

Today, it is processing just over 47,000 barrels, or 43 percent of capacity.

“The problem is crude oil,” Al-Khashab said. “We don’t have enough of it right now. It’s funny, no? In a country with so much oil, we can’t run our cars.”

During the U.S.-led war against Saddam’s regime, the United States made it a priority to protect Iraq’s oil fields from sabotage by the dictator’s loyalists. But few anticipated the rampant looting that followed Saddam’s fall.

IRAQ ADDIS
U.S. soldiers search a vehicle on a gas line to ensure it does not have multiple gas cans inside. Some people hoard gas to sell on the black market. (Noah Addis)

At Iraq’s two largest oil fields, around Kirkuk in the north and Basra in the south, looters stripped facilities of essential equipment, including tools to service machinery and cars to drive from pumping station to pumping station, Al-Khashab said. Refineries in those areas also were looted, he said.

“I can run a refinery from under a tree if I have no furniture, but I can’t process oil if I have no tools,” he said. “Those facilities are starting to work again, but it will take time to return to full capacity.”

Al-Daura was spared only because management armed many of the 2,800 employees to keep thieves at bay, Al-Khashab said. Even so, the refinery was idle for 10 days, and it was only yesterday that the work force once again reached full strength.

With more workers, the daily output tripled to 396,298 gallons, but that figure is still far short of its prewar level.

“Unfortunately, the shortage will continue for a while, then diminish gradually,” Al-Khashab said. “When there is war, things don’t go back to normal instantaneously.”

In the meantime, Baghdad’s 80 remaining gas stations — of the 100 or more in business before the war — will continue to face rationing, receiving only about one-third of the gas they once did, the refinery manager said.

Al-Khashab believes clamping down on the black marketeers will shorten the lines, and in recent days, soldiers with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division have been deployed to some stations.

On Monday, soldiers watching the line at a gas station in the city’s Daura section booted out at least 50 people caught siphoning fuel from their tanks into cans.

“They’re doing it all day long,” said Spc. James Christie, one of those on patrol. “Emptying their tanks, putting it in the trunk and then pushing the car to fill up all over again.”

At a station nearby, Staff Sgt. Thomas Applegate was having trouble yesterday maintaining order among a crowd that had waited more than seven hours. Motorists shouted at one another and at the soldiers, who grew increasingly frustrated by their inability to understand the Iraqis.

At one point, a soldier who was trying to explain to a man that he could not fill both his car and a jug finally grabbed the canister and heaved it 50 yards.

Those on foot, cordoned off in a lane formed by razor wire, were permitted to buy only 2.6 gallons at a time, a measure meant to cut down on curbside resales. Today, Applegate said, those without cars will no longer be allowed to buy gas at all.

“We’re just trying to install some organization for these people,” Applegate said. “Right now it’s just chaos.”

In the middle of the line, Esam Akram, a 32-year-old factory worker, shook his head at the confused scene up front.

“Is this reasonable?” Akram asked. “To wait on line for eight hours and then to be treated poorly by American soldiers? We have to solve this problem soon.”


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