Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Fuel Shortages Frustrate Kurds

Angry motorists suspect corrupt officials of deliberately causing supply problems.
By Fazl Najeeb
For Kamaran Mohammed, nothing is more tiring than the hours he wastes in the queue for the fuel station.

Mohammed, a 29-year-old civil servant, usually kills time making friends with others waiting in the agonisingly long line of motorists. Such queues are all too common in Sulaimaniyah and can stretch for up to two kilometres.

As they wait, Mohammed says he and the other drivers mostly complain about politics and corruption.

"We talk about the injustice in this country and how the officials get rich on the backs of people," said Mohammed.

Mohammed said fuel on the black market is readily available but too expensive. Several times, he said, he waited for nearly half a day, only for the fuel station to run out of petrol. Once, after a ten-hour wait, he and some other motorists decided to just to stay overnight in their cars.

The next morning, continued Mohammed, some drivers drove to the front of the queue, but the police turned up and ordered them to get back into line - an increasingly common scene at gas stations in this northern Kurdish city.

Although Iraq is believed to have the second-largest oil reserves in the world, the country suffers from an acute fuel shortage. Iraq's decrepit refineries, corruption and poor security are hindering the country's ability to produce and refine oil, forcing Iraqis to wait in long gas lines or rely on the black market.

A US Senate report last year estimated that Iraq loses 600 million dollars a month in oil export revenue and more on the cost of repairs to damaged infrastructure.

According to a recent Reuters report, the country's oil exports fell to 1.1 million barrels a day in December, the lowest level since before the US-led invasion in 2003.

Most experts consider sabotage the greatest threat to Iraqi production, which puts Sulaimaniyah in an advantageous position - as it is the most secure region in Iraq and is believed to have substantial oil wealth. Yet the fuel lines in this province are often longer than those in Baghdad.

According to Ahmed Arif, a Sulaimaniyah government spokesman on oil affairs, the province requires one million litres of fuel a day, but the authorities in Baghdad only provide a fifth of its needs.

Demand for fuel has spiralled due to growing car ownership since the lifting of economic sanctions in 2003 and the widespread use of electricity generators.

This demand has created a thriving black market for oil products from neighbouring Iran: men sit in the back of pick-up trucks with plastic fuel canisters alongside every major road in Sulaimaniyah.

The authorities are planning to address the dire petrol-supply situation by building two new oil refineries some 20 kilometres south of Sularimaniyah. These are expected produce 20,000 barrels of oil a day by the end of the year, according Kamal Taha, head of the Sulaimaniyah’s one refinery, who believes the new facilities will solve 90 per cent of the shortage problem.

In the meantime, the Kurdish authorities are trying to ease the difficulties people are facing by apparently turning a blind eye to the black market and allowing private petrol stations to import fuel.

Few here believe the local authorities’ claims that the supply problems stem from Baghdad’s alleged neglect of the region. Instead, there’s a suspicion that some corrupt local officials control the private pumps and the black market, supplying both with fuel earmarked for official petrol stations.

"After the [Kurdish independence] uprising in 1991, people have not spent a day without the fuel problem, and it is because of the officials in [both the main] parties," said Omed Kamal a 28-year-old taxi driver, referring to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party. "They make a business out of it."

Fazl Najeeb is an IWPR trainee journalist based in Sulaimaniyah and Erbil.