BAGHDAD -- The armed men waited until at least 10 tanker trucks were in line outside the huge refinery in the Sunni Triangle city of Baiji, a major source of gasoline for Iraq. Then they made their move: Arriving in a blue Opel sedan, their faces obscured by checkered head scarves and wraparound sunglasses, the insurgents charged into the road and began moving from truck to truck.
The truckers were in no position to resist. One by one, witnesses say, they handed over the paperwork that permitted them to leave the tank farm with a load of gasoline. When the gunmen had a fat sheaf of documents, they simply got back in their sedan and drove away, effectively shutting down one more strand of gasoline distribution in a country where energy has emerged as one of the war's most critical battlefields.
Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, talks with a mechanic at the Dora oil refinery near Baghdad. Escalating sabotage of pipelines has significantly reduced Iraqi oil exports.
(Khalid Mohammed -- Reuters Pool)
"I have been waiting here a week," said Hussein Awad, who had driven from Baghdad to fill a truck for the 7th of April service station last week. His beard was several days along and his ankle-length robe was dirty from a week of constant wear. Back in the capital, the gas lines were running three miles long.
"Every day I come here to sit and wait, wishing that those armed men will not show up so I can fill my tanker and go back to Baghdad," Awad said. "But they are here every day."
Frustrated Iraqi and U.S. officials say insurgents in recent months have displayed an impressive capacity to cripple Iraq's most vital infrastructure.
"What they're doing is focusing efforts on intelligent attacks on infrastructure, especially oil and electricity," said a senior U.S. diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The number of attacks is down, but the effectiveness of the attacks is up significantly."
The consequences have been evident across Iraq.
The biggest hit was on the national treasury. Almost the entire federal budget is generated by exports of crude oil, and, according to the Brookings Institution in Washington, revenue from oil exports in November dropped by nearly $700 million, almost 36 percent, from the previous month. The number of attacks on pipelines and other oil and gas infrastructure in November reached 30, almost tripling from October.
According to the State Department, exports rebounded slightly in December, but after attacks on pipelines in the northern and southern oil fields, early January exports skidded below even the November level, to fewer than 1 million barrels a day -- less than half the current capacity.
To ordinary Iraqis, the attacks mean cascading hardships: Either they wait in day-long lines for heavily subsidized, 5 cents-a-gallon gasoline, or they pay black-market prices that run as high as several dollars.
Then the drivers probably return to dark homes. Power outages -- some leaving Baghdad without electricity for more than a day at a time -- accompany the fuel shortages, partly because generators in Iraq burn petroleum.
Insurgents have also attacked Iraq's power grid directly. A Jan. 7 strike on power lines between Baiji and Tikrit shut down the entire national system, according to an Electricity Ministry report.
A senior Iraqi official said the most effective attacks betrayed insider knowledge.
"When I see where some of these strikes go, it's obvious they knew exactly where to hit to have a maximum impact," the official said. But it remained unknown whether the technical knowledge came from current employees or officials of Saddam Hussein's deposed Baath Party government who could be working with insurgents.