Oil-rich Iraq running on empty

TAXI driver Ali Hashim has been stuck in a queue for more than a day waiting to fill up his car with petrol, and he’s still more than three miles from the pump. Welcome to Baghdad - the capital of the country with the world’s second-largest oil reserves.

"It’s completely crazy," says Mr Hashim, who keeps a pile of blankets in the back of his car for when he has to spend the night in one of the city’s endlessly snaking petrol queues. "I was at the petrol station from 6pm yesterday until 11 this morning. I am still queuing here now and I will have to sleep over again tonight."

For weeks now, Iraq has been in the grip of a worsening energy crisis, an irony not lost on its citizens. Oil infrastructure sabotage and attacks on fuel convoys, plus a surge in demand caused by cold weather and more cars on the roads, have been to blame.

Motorists queue in lines as long as two and a half miles around Baghdad petrol stations, blocking intersections, looping through squares and in some cases spanning the length of bridges over the Tigris.

The shortages could not come at a worse time for many Iraqis, already frustrated by constant power cuts. They are also dispirited by a guerrilla insurgency in the country’s north and west, as well as in the capital, that shows no signs of abating. "For a month now, I have been coming and going and it is the same routine - there’s no petrol," said Fatma Abdul Hussein. "We ask where it is and it’s the same reply - the suppliers were killed by insurgents on the road."

Assem Jihad, of Iraq’s oil ministry, acknowledges the problem. "The ministry is importing huge quantities of oil products from neighbouring countries every day," he said. But he added that it was difficult, amid constant attacks, to get them to consumers.

Iraq has suffered shortages in the past, notably a few months after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, when people began importing new cars in the tens of thousands. Authorities then began rationing fuel, decreeing that those with an even number at the end of their licence plate could fill up one day and those with an odd number the next.

However, this shortage appears to be much more severe, and is not limited to petrol for cars - there is also a dearth of cooking gas, paraffin and other products that Iraqis rely on.

Over the past two weeks, the cost of a canister of pressurised cooking gas - the most commonly used kitchen fuel in Iraq - has risen from about 1,000 dinars (36p) to, in some cases, ten times as much, according to consumers and suppliers.

The cost of paraffin for heaters, essential during winter when overnight temperatures can drop below freezing, has risen about five-fold to 6,000 dinars (1.80) for ten litres.

At the same time, most people are without electricity for the bulk of the day. The national grid is supplying about two hours of power at a time. Four months ago, the ratio was closer to six hours on, two hours off. Many Iraqis have no private generators - and even those who have cannot keep them going because fuel oil is scarce.

In such an environment, profiteering has soared. A litre of poor-quality fuel at a petrol station usually costs about 50 dinars (1.5p), a price subsidised by the government. However, it would take a day or more to get hold of it. Street vendors, meanwhile, who spend their lives queuing for petrol to then sell it on to the less patient, charge an almost 2,000 per cent mark-up.

Anger has boiled over at many of the 150 official fuel stations scattered around Baghdad, with fights breaking out among those in line and shots being fired at queue jumpers.

Many blame corruption for the crisis, and Mr Hashim says he sees it every day. They accuse petrol station managers of favouring friends and relatives, letting them ahead in line, and of working with profiteers, allowing them to refill often if they share the profit. "I can give the guard 15,000 dinars and he may let me ahead in line, but bribes are forbidden in Islam," he says.

He says even police officers are in on the game. According to some reports, police officers have been known to cut to the front, lights flashing, fill up beyond the legal allowance, then sell the fuel on the black market.

Shaking his head in frustration, Mr Hashim added: "I’ve seen the same police car fill up four times today and I’m still waiting here."

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