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Iraqis' Dismay Surges as Lights Flicker and Gas Lines Grow

Leaders Criticized for Energy Shortages

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 24, 2004; Page A01

BAGHDAD -- The car needed gas, so the Matrood family made a day of it.

Dawn was still hours away when mom and dad bundled the children into their dirty blue Daewoo sedan and set off for the filling station. Dusk was falling when they finally reached the pump, which was flanked by National Guardsmen in ski masks, intelligence officers in jackets and rows of concrete barricades -- all necessary to protect a product as precious as a few gallons of gasoline in Iraq these days.

Motorists line up at a gas station in Baghdad's Sadr City. A wait of 12 hours is not unusual, and at least two men have been killed in line-jumping disputes. (Reuters Photo)

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"There were days when we spent the night here," said Abdul Razzaq Matrood of his family. He counted himself lucky after spending a mere 12 hours in a gas line two miles long. "We brought our blankets to sleep in the car."

Energy shortages of every stripe bedevil this country, which sits atop the world's second-largest petroleum reserves. Electricity shuts off for whole days. Prices of scarce cooking fuel have risen nine-fold. And gas lines this month reached new lengths, creating yet another venue for violence. At least two men have been killed in Baghdad over places in line or allegations of watering down the goods.

"The whole situation is unbearable," said Elham Abbas, whose family bought a small generator to use when the power went out, only to find themselves struggling to find enough gasoline to make it run. "As if all these explosions, assassinations and the daily suffering aren't enough!"

The shortages are exasperating Baghdad's residents -- already demoralized by chronic insecurity -- just as Iraq's interim government is trying hard to get ordinary citizens enthused about the Jan. 30 parliamentary election.

Voter registration concluded last week, candidates and coalitions are finalizing their platforms, and satellite television is awash with inspirational public service montages celebrating the "the Iraqi heroes" of everyday life.

"Of course this will affect the elections," said Ahmed Abdul Kadhim, who burned his last gallon of gas waiting in line and was pushing a battered sedan the last 100 yards to the pump. "Because they came and promised us they'd achieve many things, but they did not do anything."

By all accounts, the shortages have been worsened by insurgent attacks. Rebel strikes recently disabled a power station in the restive northern city of Baiji, in the heart of the Sunni Triangle. The damage last week not only plunged all of Baghdad into chilly darkness, it also shut down the overtaxed refinery on the capital's southern edge.

That kind of chain reaction is a legacy of Iraq's former Baathist government, founded on socialist principles that linked electrical power and state petroleum operations: Without one, the other cannot function.

It has also proved difficult to guard fuel supplies against insurgent attacks. The tanker trucks that ferry fuel across the country are a preferred target. Matrood's family said attacks on tankers in their home region, Babil province, had made gasoline all but impossible to come by.

Guerrillas also ambush trucks bringing in fuel from neighboring Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Ayad Allawi, the interim prime minister, last week beseeched the prime minister of Kuwait and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah to send more refined petroleum products and extra guards for the tankers carrying it.

And this week, the Oil Ministry announced that it had bought 60 brand-new gas stations to help alleviate lines. But all 60 remain in Syria because the continuous violence makes it too dangerous to haul them over the border and across the desert

Corruption has aggravated the shortages, Iraqi officials acknowledge. The government "needs to do better," said Barham Salih, the deputy prime minister. "There is fundamental mismanagement."

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