Lines Grow as Iraqis Learn of Refinery Closure

Iraqi motorists line up at a gasl station in Baghdad's Sadr city, Dec. 30.

Iraqi motorists line up at a gasl station in Baghdad's Sadr city, Dec. 30. Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters

Already beset by violence and political instability, Iraqis face another crisis as the country's largest oil refinery shuts down due to insurgent threats against fuel tank drivers. The news has sparked a growing rush for scarce gasoline, and the country's oil minister has been suspended.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

Added to the violence and political instability, Iraq is facing another crisis now: The country's largest oil refinery has shut down. The refinery at Baiji north of Baghdad has closed due to security threats. The news may have cost Iraq's oil minister his job, and as NPR's Jamie Tarabay reports from Baghdad, it has sparked a run on gasoline.

(Soundbite of traffic noise)

JAMIE TARABAY reporting:

Iraqis lined up for miles at gas pumps as news of the refinery shutdown spread. Some people waited through the night for gasoline, whose prices tripled. Iraq's northern pipeline is down, also hit by saboteurs. And the country's main oil seaport at Basra is closed because of bad weather. An Oil Ministry official says Iraq faces yet another oil supply crisis.

(Soundbite of horn honking)

TARABAY: Not all motorists were stuck in gas lines. Many turned to black market supplies instead.

QAIS TABAT(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

TARABAY: Qais Tabat is 12. When he's not at school, he's standing with his father on a Baghdad sidewalk, not far from an ice cream shop, and waving an empty plastic bottle at motorists. Here in Iraq, that means he has gasoline to sell. Qais tells drivers who pull over that he's selling five gallons of gasoline for 8,000 Iraqi dinars; that's anything between 3,000 and 5,000 dinars over the market price. Drivers are furious when they hear Qais name his price.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

TABAT: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

TARABAY: The driver chastises Qais and says taking advantage of the situation is wrong and against Islam. Qais retorts by saying he and his father have waited in line since 6 in the morning to buy the gasoline to resell it. He doesn't mention that his father also pays a bribe to the gas station attendants so they can cut in line.

Iraq has the third-largest oil reserve in the world. It's estimated that only about 10 percent of it has been tapped, and yet oil remains in short supply here. Iraq has to spend $1/2 million every month to import fuel because of insufficient refineries.

The latest problem originates in the town of Baiji, 125 miles north of Baghdad, home to the country's largest refinery. Local authorities say insurgents warned fuel tanker drivers not to make any more deliveries from the refinery. Insurgents stopped those who ignored the warning and set their tankers on fire. Munir Abbas(ph) works security at a Baghdad gas station. He says insurgents have come by and demanded the station close.

Mr. MUNIR ABBAS (Gas Station Employee): (Through Translator) They were carting light and heavy weapons. So they told us that the station will be bombed if you will open the station tomorrow and told us to tell this to the manager.

TARABAY: Abbas says he has no choice but to continue working in spite of the threats.

Mr. ABBAS: (Through Translator) Of course, I am afraid. But what will I do? I'm newly married, and I have a baby daughter. How else am I going to get them food?

TARABAY: The stoppage in Baiji has left Baghdad's refinery in the Doura neighborhood running on its reserves; they will expire in about a week. Drivers like Mahdi Hussein(ph) say he's lucky to get one delivery route a day.

Mr. MAHDI HUSSEIN (Oil Tanker Driver): (Through Translator) If it's true that Doura is closed, then we really are in a bad shape. Doura's refinery is the only one that is keeping us alive.

TARABAY: There's a twist, however, in the Baiji situation. The US military says Iraqi guards at the refinery are demanding bribes to allow tankers to enter and to leave, as were Iraqi police stationed nearby. The US military believes both the Iraqi guards and police have ties to the insurgency.

Meanwhile, Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum has threatened to resign, and there are unconfirmed reports former Washington favorite Ahmed Chalabi has again taken over the Oil Ministry. He last held the position temporarily when the provisional government hadn't appointed a permanent minister. At the time oil analysts questioned the choice, saying Chalabi had no experience in the oil sector. Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

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