A new round of price-gouging allegations has broken out in the gasoline business. But this time it's not motorists who claim they are being victimized.

Independent gasoline distributors and dealers say oil companies have taken advantage of the oil crisis to raise wholesale gas prices faster than they have increased the more publicized prices they charge their own dealers.

The result, the independent dealers and distributors say, is that their retail prices -- previously among the lowest in the industry -- are becoming uncompetitive, costing them customers in the fiercely competitive gasoline-selling business.

Experts estimate that as much as 50 percent of the gasoline sold in the United States is governed by the wholesale price.

Reviving an old feud, some independents charge that big oil companies are deliberately using the current situation to try to drive them out of business, and are calling for changes in regulations to remove the companies' advantage. At the same time, they concede that it is politically difficult right now for them to complain that prices at the big companies' stations should be higher.

For their part, the oil companies say the independents are crying wolf.

Some big companies declined to discuss the situation or they gave conflicting information about pricing policies. Others say that while the independents may not be getting the relatively cheap wholesale prices they are used to, the situation is only temporary -- and in any case, the independents' strong profits of the past few years will tide them over their current woes.

In the five weeks since Iraq invaded Kuwait, throwing world oil markets into turmoil, oil companies have responded to President Bush's call for restraint by raising the per-gallon prices to their own dealers by a dime or so -- despite a 30-cent-a-gallon rise in the price of crude oil. However, most of them have raised their wholesale, or "rack," prices by 20 cents or more, putting the wholesale price above the dealer price.

The Lundberg Letter, an industry newsletter, said that as of Aug. 28, the average rack price of unbranded gasoline was 95.3 cents a gallon, while the average dealer price was 89.3 cents -- a 6-cent spread. A few days earlier, when oil prices were at their peak, the average spread was nearly 11 cents a gallon, the newsletter said.

These prices have turned the normal relationships upside down.

Traditionally, independent gasoline dealers and distributors -- operators of a handful of gas stations each, or sellers to other "mom and pop" stations, accounting for about 20 percent of the nation's gasoline market -- have been the low-cost retailers in the gasoline business.

They play the market for gasoline, buying excess stocks from oil companies and selling the gas to customers at no-frills, discount prices that usually are a few pennies a gallon below the Exxon Corp., Mobil Oil Corp. or Shell Oil Co. station down the street. Oil companies usually charge a bit more to sell gasoline to their own dealers to cover advertising and transportation costs and other overhead.

"Yeah, the independent sector is being squeezed right now, but what about other times of the year when they were raking? You didn't hear anybody crying then," said George Babikian, president of Arco Products Co., the refining and marketing division of Los Angeles-based Atlantic Richfield Co. "When you've got a situation like this, they hurt for a while. But I'll tell you this: The independent sector is not going to die."

To hear the independents tell it, however, they're pretty sick.

"It's terrible. We are in the position where we're selling our gasoline at cost in order to be even somewhat competitive with the major oil companies," said John Steele, president of the petroleum division of East Coast Oil Corp., a Richmond firm that operates 42 gas stations in Virginia. "The bottom line is, as a practical matter, we have to ride it out."

"It's sort of like being between a fire hydrant and a dog," said Tally Roberts, president of Acme Petroleum and Fuel, a distributor and retailer in Gastonia, N.C.

"When I can go down the street here from my office and buy Jet gasoline, which is Conoco, for 11 cents cheaper than I can go in a transport and buy it at {wholesale}, something is wrong. ... We're losing money, and it's no fun to bleed. It hurts."

While some oil companies won't discuss pricing policies, others give a variety of reasons for the wholesale price climbing above the dealer price.

Some cite increased demand for wholesale gasoline that has driven price up and forced them to ration sales to wholesale buyers. Others say they are simply following the competition. Still others argue that their wholesale price is tied closely to the price of gasoline on the New York Mercantile Exchange, which has climbed sharply in recent weeks on fears of shortages caused by a lack of refinery capacity.

Yesterday, unleaded gasoline on the New York Mercantile Exchange fell 2.25 cents to 92.27 cents per gallon, after rising more than 8 cents Tuesday.

The price of a benchmark barrel of crude oil on the exchange rose 65 cents yesterday, to $29.77 a barrel.

"The marketplace says, for one reason or the other, that dealer prices are not today higher than jobber {distributor} prices," said Jim Huccaby, manager of pricing for Chevron USA, the refining and marketing arm of San Francisco-based oil giant Chevron Corp. "Our prices have gone up more to the jobbers," Huccaby said. "However, our jobber prices are still, in Chevron's case, very competitive."

Some independents say the current price situation is a strange byproduct of Bush's suggestion shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait that oil companies not take advantage of the situation to jack up prices.

"Our biggest concern, I think, is that the suppliers have constrained prices at the retail level, but they have made up that constraint at the wholesale level," said Phil Chisolm, executive director of the Petroleum Marketers Association of America, a trade group representing independent distributors.

"They're practicing market restraint at the retail level, which is giving them the twin benefit of satisfying the politicians who want that restraint, but it's also giving them market share," he said.

"The long-term implications of what they're doing for market share need to be examined by someone."