Gasoline prices jumped by several cents a gallon in the Washington area yesterday and as much as 14 cents elsewhere in the nation as oil companies and service stations quickly reacted to the uncertainty in the Middle East and rising worldwide crude oil prices caused by anticipated shortages that most experts say are weeks away.

Many experts say other market forces and increases in state gas taxes were pushing up prices even before Iraq invaded Kuwait. But the oil sellers were criticized by industry analysts, consumer advocates and politicians for appearing to cash in on the situation.

And many experts warned that temporary shortages could develop if the higher prices and news from the Middle East cause panic buying by motorists.

While most major oil companies said they had raised their wholesale prices by 2 to 7 cents, the increases at the pump in many parts of the nation were even higher.

The size, rapidity and timing of the price increases even angered some in the industry.

"There is no gasoline shortage, and anything in the Middle East affecting gasoline prices should take 30 to 90 days to pass through to consumers. But that isn't happening," said Stanley M. Schuer, executive director of the Gasoline and Automotive Service Dealers Association in New York, which represents most of the service stations in the New York metropolitan area. "It's outrageous. Somebody ought to call an investigation. They're ripping off the public."

"The timing is absolutely stupid -- crazy," said an executive of one major oil company, adding that while the increases probably were coming anyway, the announcements of wholesale price increases yesterday made it look like the oil companies were milking the crisis.

Gasoline sellers weren't the only ones raising prices yesterday. At least one major airline -- Northwest -- added an $8-per-ticket surcharge, citing anticipated increases in fuel costs. Other airlines said they were evaluating the situation, but experts expected them to raise fares as well. Heating oil dealers also were raising prices.

Analysts say there are several factors driving prices higher, many of which have been in place for several weeks. Early last month, members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries -- including Iraq and Kuwait -- agreed to try to limit production to raise prices. In addition, several states, including Virginia, recently raised gasoline taxes.

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait brought the situation to a head, experts say, particularly when President Bush embargoed shipments to the United States of oil from Iraq, which accounts for about 8 percent of U.S. imports.

From an economist's standpoint, the price increases are not as unfair as critics contended. Every gallon of gasoline sold today will have to be replaced by a gallon that will cost the dealer more money, prompting them to raises prices now to cover the higher costs they know are coming.

"Crude oil prices have risen more than 50 percent since early July, while retail prices have gone up much less, which indicates that refiners are currently not recovering in the marketplace a significant portion of the cost increases they've incurred since early July," a Texaco Inc. spokesman said. The price of a benchmark barrel of crude has risen to $24 from $16 since the Iraqi-Kuwait crisis began.

But many industry analysts said that the Iraqi situation should not have had any effect on either supply or price for several weeks because the world is generally considered to be awash in oil.

As a result, the sudden price increases recall previous reactions to fears of oil shortages, such as the oil crises in 1973 and 1979 and the Exxon Valdez oil spill last year.

"After Valdez, gas went up as much as 15 cents a gallon," said Joseph L. Koach, executive director of the Service Station Dealers of America, which represents 60,000 dealers nationwide. "We see shades of Valdez in these things where greed rears its ugly head without concern for the American public and for what is happening worldwide."

Among the major oil companies, Atlantic Richfield Co., Amoco Corp., Mobil Corp., Texaco Inc., Unocal Corp., Shell Oil Co. and Chevron Corp. each increased their wholesale prices a few cents a gallon yesterday. The nation's largest seller of gasoline, Exxon, declined to say whether it had raised prices, stating only that it "is maintaining competitive pricing in the marketplace." Several Exxon stations in the Washington area said they had not been informed of a price increase, but the manager of a company-owned station in Falls Church said he had been told the wholesale price was going up 5 cents a gallon.

The increases came as prices on world oil markets continued to rise. The price of wholesale unleaded gasoline for September delivery jumped 4.11 cents to 72.18 cents a gallon on the futures exchange.

As the oil companies raised their wholesale prices, service stations quickly followed. The American Automobile Association said its survey of 1,400 gasoline stations nationwide showed increases of as much as 14 cents a gallon, to a national average of $1.115 a gallon for self-serve unleaded gasoline -- up 4 cents from two days ago.

In the Washington area, AAA-Potomac said that 19 percent of the stations surveyed by the organization had raised their prices by an average of 3 cents a gallon since Wednesday, while 27 percent expected prices to increase within 24 hours.

In some cases, the price increases came with lightning speed. "Yesterday our price was $1.08; now it's $1.12. That's a whammer," said Charlie Carrick, manager of Kenwood Mobil Center in Bethesda.

Experts say that prices could continue to spiral if consumers don't show restraint. If motorists begin topping off their tanks, they say, real shortages and gas lines might not be far behind -- putting even more pressure on prices.

"If you get 100,000 people in an area deciding that they are going to fill their tanks today or buy gasoline earlier or in larger quantities than they normally buy, they could drain gasoline {storage} terminals," said Kenneth A. Doyle, executive vice president of the Society of Independent Gasoline Marketers of America, a Washington-based trade group representing independent gasoline distributors.

Moreover, said Edwin Rothschild, energy policy director of Citizen Action, a consumer advocacy group, this psychology plays into the hands of the Iraqis. By moving so quickly, he said, oil companies "are precipitating a price increase and making Saddam Hussein's job that much easier."

But Haskel Benishay, a business professor at Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University, said price increases probably are inevitable. "No matter what is done, oil prices will go up," he said. "If we don't react, Hussein will limit production and cause an increase. If we refuse to buy from him, that will increase oil prices immensely."

Staff writers Warren Brown, Martha Hamilton, Spenser Hsu, Evelyn Richards and Lori Silver contributed to this report.