The car needed gas, so the Matrood family made a day of it. Dawn was still hours away when mom and dad bundled the children into their dirty blue Daewoo sedan and set off for the...

Share story

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The car needed gas, so the Matrood family made a day of it.

Dawn was still hours away when mom and dad bundled the children into their dirty blue Daewoo sedan and set off for the filling station. Dusk was falling when they finally reached the pump, which was flanked by National Guardsmen in ski masks, intelligence officers in jackets and rows of concrete barricades — all necessary to protect a product as precious as a few gallons of gasoline in Iraq these days.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks

“There were days when we spent the night here,” said Abdul Razzaq Matrood of his family. He counted himself lucky after spending a mere 12 hours in a gas line 2 miles long. “We brought our blankets to sleep in the car.”

Energy shortages of every stripe bedevil this country, which sits atop the world’s second-largest petroleum reserves. Electricity shuts off for whole days. Prices of scarce cooking fuel have risen nine-fold. And gas lines this month reached new lengths, creating yet another venue for violence. At least two men have been killed in Baghdad over places in line or allegations of watering down the goods.

“The whole situation is unbearable,” said Elham Abbas, whose family bought a small generator to use when the power went out, only to find themselves struggling to find enough gasoline to make it run. “As if all these explosions, assassinations and the daily suffering aren’t enough!”

The shortages are exasperating Baghdad’s residents — already demoralized by chronic insecurity — just as Iraq’s interim government is trying hard to get ordinary citizens enthused about the Jan. 30 parliamentary election.

“Of course this will affect the elections,” said Ahmed Abdul Kadhim, who burned his last gallon of gas waiting in line and was pushing a battered sedan the last 100 yards to the pump. “Because they came and promised us they’d achieve many things, but they did not do anything.”

By all accounts, the shortages have been worsened by insurgent attacks. Rebel strikes recently disabled a power station in the restive northern city of Baiji, in the heart of the Sunni Triangle. The damage last week not only plunged all of Baghdad into chilly darkness, it also shut down the overtaxed refinery on the capital’s southern edge.

That kind of chain reaction is a legacy of Iraq’s former Baathist government, founded on socialist principles that linked electrical power and state petroleum operations: Without one, the other cannot function.

It has also proved difficult to guard fuel supplies against insurgent attacks. The tanker trucks that ferry fuel across the country are a preferred target. Matrood’s family said attacks on tankers in their home region, Babil province, had made gasoline all but impossible to come by.

Guerrillas also ambush trucks bringing in fuel from neighboring Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Ayad Allawi, the interim prime minister, last week beseeched the prime minister of Kuwait and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah to send more refined petroleum products and extra guards for the tankers carrying it.

And this week, the Oil Ministry announced that it had bought 60 brand-new gas stations to help alleviate lines. But all 60 remain in Syria because the continuous violence makes it too dangerous to haul them over the border and across the desert

Corruption has aggravated the shortages, Iraqi officials acknowledge. The government “needs to do better,” said Barham Salih, the deputy prime minister. “There is fundamental mismanagement.”

Even if there were no sabotage, officials say, Iraq’s fuel supply is clearly being diverted by the people who control it. The official system builds in numerous incentives for distributors to siphon gasoline before it reaches service stations. For one thing, the government sets an artificially low price for fuel — so low that the government spends $5 billion to $7 billion a year subsidizing it.

“It’s bigger than the cost of the food ration,” said Adnan Janabai, a government minister of state, referring to the massive subsidy for staple foods that, along with the fuel subsidy, eats up half of Iraq’s budget, according to officials. “What’s doing the damage is the smuggling.”

Black-market prices

For anyone entrusted with distributing gasoline, the temptation is obvious. At the pump, the price of a gallon of gas is officially set at 80 dinars, the equivalent of one American nickel.

A week and a half ago, customers unwilling to wait in line were handing over $2.70 for the same gallon. Last Saturday, the black-market rate had dropped to perhaps half that, but the 2,500 percent markup remained a powerful enticement to sell the stuff on the side.

“Yes, the people blame us, but what can we do?” said Atiyaf Abdul Sattar, an Oil Ministry employee, who was driving a Toyota van so new it had no license plates. Because she works for the ministry, she had to wait in line only an hour at a Baghdad filling station. “The main problem is the security situation.”

“The main problem is with us,” countered Natiq Dawood, 39, a taxi driver in a 2-mile line on Thursday. “Some people even praise the government, even though under the previous regime … there were no long lines.”

Shortages do appear to have worsened since Iraq took responsibility for its fuel supplies. The U.S. Defense Logistics Agency, which for more than a year imported gasoline, cooking fuel and kerosene, turned over control of imports to the Iraqi interim government in mid-September.

The fuel crisis followed weeks later.

“Instead of showering every day, we do it once a week now,” said Muayad Abbas, 34, sitting in his chilly Baghdad house with his hands tucked into his armpits for warmth. Then he and his mother, bundled in winter clothes, inspected the walls for cracks and shoved newspapers into them. Kerosene, which cost the equivalent of $1 for 11 gallons a month ago, now costs $9.

At night, the temperature approaches freezing, especially inside homes built to retain the cold during Baghdad’s long, sweltering summers.

“We put our jackets and socks on when we go to bed,” said Um Muhammed Wal, a neighbor in the Tobchi neighborhood. As elections approach, the political implications of the shortages loom ever larger. In Baghdad’s largest slum, operatives of the radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr organized distribution of kerosene and gas at seven stations until U.S. forces intervened.

Politics and propane

Last Saturday, news that the interim government had begun court proceedings against Gen. Ali Hassan Majeed, the notorious lieutenant of ousted President Saddam Hussein known as “Chemical Ali,” only irritated some Baghdad residents more concerned with daily travails.

“He was bad, but we didn’t have to fight for a cooking-gas cylinder,” said Saad Noaman, 41, a taxi driver arguing with a clerk over the price of propane.

Noting that Majeed’s court appearance was being shown on television, he added sourly, “Have them fix the electricity first so that people will be able to watch.”

Some Baghdad residents say they will simply not vote, rather than be seen as rewarding an interim government that has urged them to cast ballots. Government officials prefer to frame the issue as an incentive to better governance.

“It’s democracy,” said Salih, the deputy prime minister. “There’s incentive for the government to get things right so people will vote for it.”

At the same time, Salih added with a grim smile, not all the news has been bad. Last week Iraqi police captured a Syrian man walking on a freeway bridge spanning the Tigris River in the capital’s south end. The vehicle he had abandoned turned out to be rigged with explosives.

“A car bomb ran out of fuel,” Salih said. “There’s always a silver lining.”

Staff writer Jackie Spinner, correspondent Anthony Shadid and special correspondents Omar Fekeiki, Khalid Saffar and Naseer Nouri contributed to this story.