Prague, 6 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq's months-long energy crisis hit a new low just before the new year, with gasoline supplies dipping so low that queues at fuel stations stretched for kilometers.
Authorities are desperate to repair the situation, and have imposed stringent rules for drivers. Consumers are allowed to purchase gasoline only every other day, and only in amounts of 30 liters at a time.
"No gasoline in my car tank. No gasoline for my generator. On 31 December, we were sitting in a dark and cold house," says Bassem, a logistics officer with an American nongovernmental organization based in Baghdad.
Officials in Iraq say the problem is already easing because the government is beginning to import more fuel from neighboring countries. But Bassem says he has yet to see any improvements.
"Yesterday, I tried to fill up my car at a gasoline station, but I couldn't, because the queue [was] still long [and I had no time to wait]," Bassem said.
Bassem says he has no rational explanation for why cars now line up for kilometers for gas when there were no such shortages several months ago. He speculates one possible reason may be the push by U.S. troops to purge Baghdad of black marketeers who up until recently could be found on city streets selling canisters of gasoline.
Bassem says as long as they could afford the mark-up, Iraqis would often forgo the gas line for a nearby black marketeer. A few weeks ago, U.S. troops began arresting the traders and now, he says, the black market is far less visible. But it has not disappeared altogether, according to Bassem.
"Yes, [the American troops] tried to fight it but they couldn't. Yesterday I filled my car using the black market," he said.
Bassem says the only result of the U.S. initiative is that speculators have moved to narrow, secluded streets and raised prices by more than 25 times the official one-cent-per-liter rates. It's a crippling dilemma for many Iraqis, who are desperate for fuel but rarely earn more than $60 a month.
The Oil Ministry's decision to limit purchases to alternate days in 30-liter amounts has likewise exacerbated the problem. Bassem says he has to queue up twice in order to fill the tank of his car -- a prospect that can take hours.
"No gasoline in my car tank. No gasoline for my generator. On 31 December, we were sitting in a dark and cold house"
The restrictions, he says, are "funny -- they make queues longer, they don't work and they let people working at the gasoline stations pocket additional money."
"You can go to a gasoline station and pay some extra money. You pay for more than 30 liters and then they'll fill up your tank. If you give them a tip, let's say, then they'll fill up your tank. They don't care about the amount, because nobody is watching them. The Americans tried to watch them for a couple of days, but then they just left. So the Iraqis are on their own, and you can fill up if you're giving a tip," Bassem said.
It's a situation that leaves many Iraqis with just two options: queue up, or leave the car at home. But for many, a vehicle is the key to making a living. Taxi drivers often spend an entire day in gasoline lines simply in order to be able to work the following day, meaning half their work days amount to a loss. "Everything is affected by these unending shortages," Bassem says.
Ali is a security guard and a driver for a Western embassy in Baghdad. He says the embassies are also experiencing gasoline shortages, but that diplomats -- like officials from the Iraqi Governing Council and the Coalition Provisional Authority -- do not have to queue up for hours in order to fill up their vehicles with gas.
"There is one fuel station they made especially for the government, for emergencies -- for ambulances or firefighters or [officials' cars]. And there is a queue for these cars, of course. The queue is not that long but there is a queue. Anyway, we have some exceptions -- we can take some fuel from the CPA, from the 'green zone,'" Ali said.
Ali says he is not allowed to use the special station to fill up his own car, but that he often finds ways around the problem. One solution, he says, is sending his sister to a regular fuel station. Iraqi men, he explains, cannot bear to see women suffering in long lines surrounded by the opposite sex. So many gas stations have special, shorter lines for women.
But Ali says it is the electricity shortages that bother him the most of all. His family has a personal generator, but no fuel to feed it. During a power outage, he says, his family "just sits in the darkness," never knowing when electricity will be restored.
"Electricity in my house is cut for four hours, then it comes on [for two hours], and it's not on schedule. I mean, sometimes there is no electricity for four hours or two hours, or 12 hours, or sometimes even 24 hours. Sometimes even if there is power it's [very weak]. I mean, we miss electricity a lot," Ali said.
Ali is not the only Iraqi who misses electricity, fuel, and a normal life. Iraqi Sh'ia Muslim authorities have also become involved in the fight for energy. In late December, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the religious leader of the Shi'a majority, issued a religious ruling declaring the smuggling of fuel illegal. Sistani declared that he considered the "resale to citizens of fuel at elevated prices an illicit transaction."