'I started queueing yesterday and I expect petrol tomorrow'

By Patrick Cockburn

10 December 2004

Independent

A crippling shortage of petrol is overshadowing next month's election in Iraq, with drivers in Baghdad forced to queue for up to 36 hours for fuel.

Iraqis seldom talk about the election because of the fuel crisis. In the past three weeks the supply of petrol, diesel and electricity in the Iraqi capital has nosedived. Kerosene for heating is expensive and difficult to find.

"I started queuing at 3.15pm yesterday and I expect I will not get any petrol until tomorrow," said Salah Hassan, a civil servant, as he waited in a three-mile queue of vehicles outside Karada petrol station. Mr Hassan said he had taken a three-day holiday from his job and kept his children home from school solely so he could buy 30 litres of petrol. Parents drive their children to school because of lack of buses and the fear of kidnappers.

The crisis in fuel supplies is worse than at any time since the invasion in March last year. Because of the lack of electricity many people in Baghdad use small generators, costing about $100, to power their electric lights. If they cannot buy petrol for the generator they must sit in the dark.

There is a chronic shortage of diesel and it has also become more expensive. This means it is far more costly than it used to be to transport goods to Baghdad, leading to a rise in prices. A businessman said: "It used to cost me $50 to send a lorry filled with bricks from Mosul to Baghdad but now it costs me $230." Banditry and fighting between US troops and insurgents are also increasing transport costs.

The drivers waiting outside Karada petrol station yesterday were aware of the irony that Iraq sits on the second-largest oil reserves in the world. "I blame the ministry of oil and the ministry of electricity, but it is the Americans who are really running the country," said Shakir al-Mukhtar, a taxi driver. Like many other drivers, he said it would be difficult for him to vote because nobody knows who is standing.

The fuel crisis is exacerbating disillusionment with the interim government. "I can't imagine this happening under Saddam because then we had a strong government," said Mohammed Hussein Majid, a biologist.

The shortage of oil products has a number of causes. Pipelines have been sabotaged and petrol is often smuggled abroad or sold on the black market.

The struggle to survive is becoming more difficult by the day for people in Baghdad. Gas for cooking has soared in price; garbage is often not collected and lies heaped beside the road.