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Iraq: Al-Basrah Riot Underlines Frustration With Energy Shortages

As Iraqis complain over the slow pace of reconstruction, the southern city of Al-Basrah this weekend erupted into riots against fuel shortages that left three dead. RFE/RL looks at the reasons for the riots and why reviving Iraq's economic revival is proving so difficult.

Prague, 11 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- This weekend's rioting in Iraq's second city of Al-Basrah underlines how frustrated Iraqis have grown over the fuel and electricity shortages that continue to plague much of the country.

That frustration was evident in the shouts of a crowd of several thousand people who burned tires and hurled rocks at British troops over the weekend.

British officials who administer Al-Basrah, a city of half a million people, say the two days of protests and rock throwing began when customers turned violent over prices at a local gasoline station. The customers, who had been waiting for hours in a kilometers-long queue, accused the station's owner of charging exorbitant prices.

But when coalition troops arrived to quell the situation, the violence quickly spread to other fuel stations and then across the city. British troops responded by firing rubber bullets to disperse the crowds.

On 10 August, a Nepalese security guard delivering mail for the United Nations was killed by a mob who stopped his car. Two Iraqis were also reported killed by gunfire during rioting, though it is not clear who fired the shots.

The violence, now subsided, was some of the worst to hit an Iraqi city since coalition forces toppled Saddam Hussein in April. But, unlike earlier incidents in Baghdad and some northern cities -- where groups opposed to the occupation have often organized protests -- it seems to have had no political overtones. Many protesters told reporters that they were not supporters of Hussein but ordinary Iraqis fed up with persistent shortages of fuel, electricity and other basic supplies.

The shortages of gasoline have forced people in Al-Basrah and many other parts of Iraq to choose between waiting at a gas station for as long as 24 hours or buying fuel on the black market. On the black market, a liter of gasoline can cost up to 50 times the usual price.

At the same time, shortages of cooking gas (liquefied petroleum gas) have caused the price of a canister to soar on the black market to 16 times the normal rate. The prices of kerosene and diesel have also jumped.

Iraqis widely blame shortages on what they say is the U.S.-led coalition's failure to deliver on promises to revive the country's economy. The economy, reduced to subsistence levels by more than a decade of UN sanctions, was further weakened by the three-week-long war and subsequent looting.

But U.S. officials say that they are making progress as fast as is possible under difficult conditions. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell summed up the progress for reporters last month by saying: "There are a lot of good things that are happening. Children are going back to schools. All the hospitals are open. No one is starving. Slowly but surely the infrastructure is being put back in place."

Behind the gap between popular frustration and official optimism lies a complicated reconstruction task in which progress is being continually hampered by Iraq's poor security situation.

In Al-Basrah, energy production has been hard hit by theft at every stage of the process of refining crude oil into consumer fuels. The thefts have combined with periodic, deliberate acts of sabotage by anti-occupation forces to render Iraq unable to meet its domestic energy needs, even though Iraq's oil fields are now producing enough surplus for exports.

One problem is the tapping of oil-field pipelines by criminal gangs. Taking advantage of the coalition forces' inability to patrol hundreds of kilometers of pipelines, the gangs routinely drill holes in pipes to siphon off crude by the truck-load. The trucks then drive across the desert into Kuwait and Jordan, where the oil is sold.

In one measure of the scale of such operations, U.S. troops recently confiscated a dozen fuel trucks assembled on the Iraqi side of the Jordanian border. Earlier this month, U.S. authorities announced they had detained around 150 people and seized some 100 fuel trucks in a two-week period.

At the same time, gangs have taken advantage of the poor security situation to resume smuggling oil by sea down the Persian Gulf. Such smuggling was rampant under Saddam Hussein's regime, which organized the activity to break UN sanctions on sales outside of the oil-for-food program and earn additional revenue.

Two days ago, British naval forces patrolling the waters off Iraq's southern port of Umm Qasr said they had intercepted a boat smuggling 1,100 tons of oil -- the largest seizure since the end of the war. The boat, the "Navstar," was registered in Panama and had a Ukrainian crew.

The commander of the warship that made the seizure, Commander Graeme Mackay, said the crew had been arrested and sent to Umm Qasr. "The boarding team went on board and arrested the crew and master, and that crew -- along with our coalition partners -- has now been diverted back to Umm Qasr," Mackay said. "That very much demonstrates the coalition's resolve to ensure that the Iraqi oil is there for the Iraqi people, that it is not taken illegally from Iraq. "

The British officer left unexplained how the "Navstar," a boat that previously had been caught smuggling oil during the Hussein era, was able to load the crude in coalition-controlled Iraq.

Beyond the smuggling of oil -- which reduces supplies to refineries -- thieves also frequently pull down electric power lines to sell the copper wiring as scrap. Coalition officials say that power lines are also a favorite target for saboteurs intent on shutting down the electrical grid to bring refining and other activities to a halt.

"The New York Times" reported today that theft, sabotage, and the poor condition of equipment is limiting Iraq's three major refineries -- at Al-Basrah, Bayji, and Baghdad -- to producing just 18 million to 22 million liters a day of gasoline, kerosene, and diesel fuel, combined.

To meet consumer demand, the paper says, the refineries would need to produce between 37 million and 40 million liters a day. To offset the gasoline shortfall, the coalition currently imports about 6 million liters daily.

Following this weekend's fuel riots in Al-Basrah, reconstruction officials said they are working to install new generators for the city's refinery and to repair damaged power lines.

One unidentified official also told "The New York Times" that if shortages persist, the officials "would consider increasing gasoline imports and beginning significant imports of kerosene and diesel."