Oil Rich Iraq Suffers Through Gasoline Shortage

In Iraq, with the second-largest proven oil reserves in the world, residents of Baghdad are enduring a fuel shortage. Long lines at gas stations are not unusual. But now many stations are closed for lack of fuel.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Iraq is sitting on the third largest proven oil reserves in the world. And yet, since the U.S.-led invasion, fuel has been in short supply. In Baghdad, drivers sit in lines that extend for miles. The shortage is also felt in other Iraqi cities, and even black market sellers can't keep up with the demand.

NPR's Jamie Tarabay reports from Baghdad.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

JAMIE TARABAY reporting:

Taxi driver Saif Jassim is finally at the front of the queue at this gas station in south Baghdad. His traditional white Arab tunic is no longer very white, and he gives off the odor of someone who's slept in his car for the past two days in the baking heat - waiting in line.

Mr. SAIF JASSIM (Taxi Driver, Iraq): (Through translator) All the petrol I'm getting is for our generator at home. People aren't using taxis anymore because it's too expensive, so we aren't getting any work.

TARABAY: Jassim says the minimum cab fare he gets is 10,000 Iraqi dinars, about six dollars, and people can't even afford that. He's afraid the government will raise the prices for gasoline again and make things even worse.

Mr. JASSIM: (Through translator) Then I'll sell my car and sit at home jobless. Or I'll go rob someone or loot a shop because I'm married and I have kids and I have to feed them.

(Soundbite of car starting)

TARABAY: The shortage and the fuel hike came hand-in-hand. Last week, a power outage at the main refinery in Baji, in northern Iraq, cut production from two millions gallons a day to 400,000. Prices for fuel doubled in some places. Protests erupted everywhere.

In the city of Kut, an angry motorist set his car on fire. In the holy Shiite city of Karbala, drivers burned tires in front of gas stations in protest. In the Kurdish north, in Sulaymaniyah, drivers threw rocks at gas stations, demonstrating against the government.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki blamed insurgent attacks on refineries, pipelines, and fuel convoys as the main reason for the current crisis. U.S. and Iraqi military operations along the northern border had also hampered the importing of fuel, but he said the shortage should ease up soon.

Ms. MAYSOON MOHAMMAED (Iraqi Housewife): (Foreign language spoken)

TARABAY: But not soon enough for Maysoon Mohammaed, a housewife running back and forth between attendants at the south Baghdad gas station, holding up a dirty, white plastic jerry can.

Ms. MOHAMMAED: (Through translator) I'm here to get petrol. My husband is handicapped and isn't working. So I can't afford to buy it from the black market.

TARABAY: Her eyes are red, peeking out from a black albaya that wraps her from head to toe. She's been here for nearly four hours and is desperate.

Ms. MOHAMMAED: (Through translator) This government has no conscience. If they're going to raise prices, the government should help people. The situation is getting worse. Our young men are getting killed. Our children are kidnapped for money. What can we do?

TARABAY: The fuel isn't just for cars. Most people need it for their home generators, because they're not getting enough electricity. People in Baghdad only get a few hours of power a day.

Iraqis rely on their generators to power their lights, refrigerators, and air conditioners - especially now, when temperatures regularly top 110 degrees every day.

(Soundbite of tapping noise)

TARABAY: One person smiling, though, is Kamil Khalaf, standing at an intersection tapping an empty plastic bottle, the sign many black market sellers make to let motorists know they have gasoline to sell. Khalaf was luckier than most. He bought 15 gallons in the morning and sold all of them by noon.

Mr. KAMIL KHALAF (Black Marketer, Iraq): (Through translator) I spent the night at the gas station. Now that I'm done, I'm going home to sleep. The day after tomorrow I'll come back and get more.

TARABAY: He's also made a profit. He sold his supply for four times the price it cost him to buy all 15 gallons. He used to be a cab driver, but doing this makes more sense.

At least for now.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

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