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Iraqis' Dismay Surges as Lights Flicker and Gas Lines Grow

Even if there were no sabotage, officials say, Iraq's fuel supply is clearly being diverted by the people who control it. The official system builds in numerous incentives for distributors to siphon gasoline before it reaches service stations. For one thing, the government sets an artificially low price for fuel -- so low that the government spends $5 billion to $7 billion a year subsidizing it.

"It's bigger than the cost of the food ration," said Adnan Janabai, a government minister of state, referring to the massive subsidy for staple foods that, along with the fuel subsidy, eats up half of Iraq's budget, according to officials. "What's doing the damage is the smuggling."

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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For anyone entrusted with distributing gasoline, the temptation is obvious. At the pump, the price of a gallon of gas is officially set at 80 dinars, the equivalent of one American nickel.

Ten days ago, customers unwilling to wait in line were handing over $2.70 for the same gallon. On Saturday, the black market rate had dropped to perhaps half that, but the 2,500 percent markup remained a powerful enticement to sell the stuff on the side.

"Yes, the people blame us, but what can we do?" said Atiyaf Abdul Sattar, an Oil Ministry employee, who was driving a Toyota van so new it had no license plates. Because she works for the ministry, she had to wait in line only an hour at a Baghdad filling station. "The main problem is the security situation."

"The main problem is with us," countered Natiq Dawood, 39, a taxi driver in a two-mile line on Thursday. "Some people even praise the government, even though under the previous regime . . . there were no long lines."

Shortages do appear to have worsened since Iraq took responsibility for its fuel supplies. The U.S. Defense Logistics Agency, which for more than a year imported gasoline, cooking fuel and kerosene, turned over control of imports to the Iraqi interim government in mid-September.

The fuel crisis followed weeks later.

"Instead of showering every day, we do it once a week now," said Muayad Abbas, 34, sitting in his chilly Baghdad house with his hands tucked into his armpits for warmth. Then he and his mother, bundled in winter clothes, inspected the walls for cracks and shoved newspapers into them. Kerosene, which cost the equivalent of $1 for 11 gallons a month ago, now costs $9.

At night, the temperature approaches freezing, especially inside homes built to retain the cold during Baghdad's long, sweltering summers.

"We put our jackets and socks on when we go to bed," said Um Muhammed Wal, a neighbor in the Tobchi neighborhood. "I sleep under the blanket like a child in the mother's womb."

As elections approach, the political implications of the shortages loom ever larger. In Baghdad's largest slum, operatives of the radical Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr organized distribution of kerosene and gas at seven stations until U.S. forces intervened.

On Saturday, news that the interim government had begun court proceedings against Gen. Ali Hassan Majeed, the notorious lieutenant of ousted president Saddam Hussein known as "Chemical Ali," only irritated some Baghdad residents more concerned with daily travails.

"He was bad, but we didn't have to fight for a cooking gas cylinder," said Saad Noaman, 41, a taxi driver arguing with a clerk over the price of propane.

Noting that Majeed's court appearance was being shown on television, he added sourly, "Have them fix the electricity first so that people will be able to watch."

Some Baghdad residents say they will simply not vote, rather than be seen as rewarding an interim government that has urged them to cast ballots. Government officials prefer to frame the issue as an incentive to better governance.

"It's democracy," said Salih, the deputy prime minister "There's incentive for the government to get things right so people will vote for it."

At the same time, Salih added with a grim smile, not all the news has been bad. Last week Iraqi police captured a Syrian man walking on a freeway bridge spanning the Tigris River in the capital's south end. The vehicle he had abandoned turned out to be rigged with explosives.

"A car bomb ran out of fuel," Salih said. "There's always a silver lining."

Staff writer Jackie Spinner, correspondent Anthony Shadid and special correspondents Omar Fekeiki, Khalid Saffar and Naseer Nouri contributed to this story.

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