BAGHDAD - Before the recent war in Iraq, the sanctions decreased access
to many resources, but gas was still plentiful and affordable. Since the invasion
in 2003, gas and kerosene have been in short supply.
Iraq has the second-largest oil deposits in the world, but Iraqis are
forced to sit in excruciatingly long lines, waiting for a meager amount of petrol.
Under Saddam Hussein's regime, the Oil-for-Food program provided quotas for
Iraq's oil production. Iraq was able to meet, and illegally exceed, those limits.
Saddam's regime was able to maintain tight security at oil drilling sites and
pipelines, so supply was uninterrupted. Fuel cost approximately three cents
a liter (about 10 cents a gallon). Kerosene was even cheaper: a reliable electricity
grid decreased the need for home generators, so the demand for kerosene was
"We used to get gas very easily, and we used to get kerosene very easily
during the winter time," says Hussein Rudha, a taxi driver in Baghdad.
"We didn't even have a problem with the rations. Even the prices for those
materials were pretty cheap."
After the fall of Saddam's regime in April 2003, the security situation in
Iraq swiftly deteriorated. In addition to the looting of the Iraqi National
Museum and ministry buildings, the pipelines carrying Iraq's oil were sabotaged
more than 200 times.
The recurring acts of sabotage have greatly depleted Iraq's local supplies
of oil. Much of the oil that is produced is controlled by foreign companies,
who were contracted to manage the oil early in the war.
Iraqis believe that the fuel produced in Iraq is exported, and the fuel available
for use by Iraqis is imported from Kuwait or other oil-producing nations in
The shortage has dramatically changed daily life in Iraq.. Baghdad residents
may only drive on certain days: those whose license plates end in even numbers
may drive on even numbered dates and those ending in odd numbers may drive on
days with odd numbers.
Some of the wealthier families own two cars with different plate numbers, enabling
them to drive any day.
Drivers can only buy fuel on the days they can drive. This restriction, combined
with the long gas queues, means that some people can only drive every third
or fifth day. "I have spent 13 hours in a gas queue once, waiting from
the morning, and when it was getting late, an American patrol came and told
me it was time for me to go home because the curfew would be starting soon.
So I wasted the whole day," said Iraqi journalist Isham Rashid.
Waiting in the queue not only wastes time, it can be dangerous. One day I was
videotaping the gas queue, and Omar, my assistant, was taking photos. Our driver,
Hussein, suddenly told me to put the camera down. I finished recording and placed
it beneath the dashboard in time to see an American tank rumble by, almost close
enough to touch.
Frequent American army patrols outside the city and along the highways are
a source of tension and anxiety for Iraqis. "In the long gas lines, we
are afraid we will be injured by a car bomb attacking us, or maybe killed by
an exchange of gunfire. Or the driver will have to stay in line for one day
without being able to work," says Khulood, who lives in Baghdad as a refugee.
The even and odd restriction and the long gas queues have a particularly huge
impact on the employment situation. Drivers are some of the only Iraqis still
able to find work in Baghdad.
Having lost their previous professional positions or the ability to pursue
their education, many members of Iraq's middle class have pressed their mid-range
to luxury vehicles into transporting those lucky enough to have found gainful
employment. "I work as a taxi driver; I couldn't continue my education
because the conditions are so hard and because of the financial situation,"
said the taxi driver Hussein, who is in his twenties.
Now kerosene has also become scarce and expensive. The failing electricity
grid has created a large market for kerosene-powered generators. The gas shortages
and the long lines mean some families cannot obtain gas to keep their lights
on or their houses warm in the winter.
"When we came here, my child was nine days old and we didn't have anything
to keep her warm, so we used to cover her with a lot of blankets to keep her
warm," said Khulood..
The need for fuel for transportation and generators has fostered a large black
market. These black market sources of gasoline are readily apparent in Baghdad.
There are places in the shadows of buildings where men in their twenties and
thirties recline in the shade, seating themselves on makeshift chairs and propping
their feet up on gasoline containers.
On the highways and the outer neighborhoods of Baghdad it is easy to find young
boys sitting on similar canisters in the sun or in the shade of a date tree.
The more ambitious of these boys take pains to flag down passing vehicles, waving
at them with makeshift funnels constructed from two-liter soda bottles.
Once, while out on the road, our driver ran low on fuel. We stopped for one
of these boys selling fuel. After filling the tank, we tried to pay with a large
bill. The boy did not have change, so he ran to the nearby gas station to get
smaller bills. As we drove away, I saw him return to the petrol station with
his empty canister, doubtless to refill for the next needy customer.
As we sit again in the line waiting for petrol, another American tank passes,
and Hussein makes a statement that seems increasingly true in the new Iraq.
"This is the new constitution."
Omar Abdullah contributed to this report.