Security Threats Shut Down Iraq Refineries

An international team of election monitors was due in Iraq Friday to check allegations of fraud in this month's elections. The team's involvement may help assuage Sunni constituents angry at the outcome. Violence has caused at least two oil refineries to shut down, worsening gas shortages.

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Today, an international team of election monitors was due in Iraq. Their job is to check allegations of fraud in this month's elections. So far, the United Nations has said the voting was largely free and fair. And for many Iraqis, a more immediate question is where they will get the money for their next tank of gas. NPR's Jamie Tarabay reports from Baghdad.

JAMIE TARABAY reporting:

American Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad says inviting the observers shows how committed the government and its election commission is about having as transparent an election process as possible. It also helps Sunni politicians placate simmering tensions within their communities. The Sunnis' returns at the polls failed to dent the ruling Shiite alliance's majority, causing many to allege fraud and vote rigging.

(Soundbite of band music and crowd chanting)

TARABAY: Since the elections, Sunni leaders addressed protest after protest, promising they would not accept the results until the people had. The arrival of this independent international team may seem like a small political victory, but for Sunni politicians, it's a major coup. They tell NPR, `This is key to show their constituents that they are again political players in Iraq, regardless of how many seats they will get.' It gives them the ability to say they've pursued every avenue of investigation and the final number of seats, though fewer than hoped for, must be accepted. Sunni politicians also tell NPR they are meeting and discussing the new government with the Kurdish and Shiite blocs and expect a fair representation in the new government. But they have to make their constituents happy first and convince them to abandon violence. Otherwise, there could be more attacks like those in the northern town of Baiji, where threats against fuel tanker drivers have forced the country's largest oil refinery to shut down. News reports quote the local authorities as saying that the refinery has been closed for 10 days now. The stoppage has forced Baghdad's main refinery to also halt production.

The government depends on the sale of its oil for nearly all its revenues. Iraq has yet to produce oil at levels higher than during Saddam Hussein's rule. The Iraqi government is already facing criticism for hiking the price of gasoline by 150 percent two weeks ago, something it's had to do as part of a debt relief program. The shortage in fuel is forcing many Iraqis to abandon long queues at gas stations and make for the black market instead. Even then, prepare to pay significantly more. They may not find gasoline. The black market is also running out. Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

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