Iraq Initiates Restrictions to Conserve Gas
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Iraq has the world's third-largest oil reserves, but on the streets there gasoline can be hard to come by. To combat the shortages the government has expanded its rationing program and started enforcing new driving rules in the capital. From Baghdad, NPR's Deborah Amos reports.
(Soundbite of goats; traffic)
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
DEBORAH AMOS reporting:
Iraqi traffic police scanned license plates for offenders. This week the government announced private cars must be off the road on alternate days based on license plates with even or odd numbers. Officer Marwan Kamal(ph) says Baghdad's notorious snarl of traffic eased in the first day of the new restrictions, but he also knows it's another hardship for Iraqis trying to get to work under the new rules.
Officer MARWAN KAMAL: (Through Translator) I see cars that are not abiding by the law, but I am not fining them. They need a couple of days.
AMOS: Oil-rich Iraq has already imposed rationing at the gas pump in what the prime minister has called `these times of emergency.' Insurgent attacks are part of the problem. Last week a roadside bomb set off fires at two oil pipelines in the north, shutting down exports again despite new security patrols in place. Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum says pipelines are now prime targets.
Mr. IBRAHIM BAHR AL-ULUM (Oil Minister, Iraq): If you consider the number of attack in the last two weeks--considerably higher than the previous two months.
AMOS: The oil minister ties the new sabotage campaign to politics. He says the upsurge began the day of the deadline for writing Iraq's Constitution, August 15th.
Mr. BAHR AL-ULUM: Since 15th of August we had more than 10 attacks on the--for the line on Baghdad.
AMOS: But sabotage is not the only problem. Another is cheap gas. The Iraqi government subsidized prices, a policy from Saddam's time. Gasoline in Iraq is 5 cents a gallon, much lower than surrounding states, which has set off a brisk black-market trade, especially in southern Iraq, where hundreds of thousands of gallons of gas are siphoned off for neighboring markets in Iran, Kuwait and Jordan. Iraq's new coast guard is battling black marketeers. Oil Minister Bahr al-Ulum says smuggling and sabotage are his biggest challenges.
Mr. BAHR AL-ULUM: We did good job to arrest several peoples in different area in Baghdad and also in Basra, and we're doing better than three month back.
AMOS: Better, but not good enough to avoid rationing or new road restrictions that have angered drivers already dealing with electricity and water shortages. Abir Ali(ph) works at a private bank. She hires a regular driver to get her there safely and will risk the fine rather than hire a second driver to meet the license plate rule.
Ms. ABIR ALI: (Through Translator) I will not pay the police. I will confront them. This is not realistic. Now men will stay at home with no jobs, and that is bad.
AMOS: Men like Mohammed Abu Tibai(ph), a day laborer, cannot afford to be without a job. There are other solutions, he says.
Mr. MOHAMMED ABU TIBAI (Day Laborer): (Through Translator) A rich man can buy another car. The poor man can buy another license plate.
(Soundbite of electric drill; plate hitting ground)
AMOS: Which is exactly what many Iraqis are doing. Illegal plates cost about $3 in Baghdad. With a hammer and drill, drivers are already beating the system. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Baghdad.
ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio.