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

Petrol Shortages Return to Baghdad

Angry motorists reach for their guns as frustration over long petrol queues leads to violence.
By Naser Kadhem

Gunfire rings out over a filling station in the impoverished southwest Baghdad suburb of Amal. The shooting scatters waiting motorists, but when it stops at least one bystander is dead and several more are wounded.


"I demand that the Governing Council and the coalition solve this problem," said a distraught Salah Attiya, brother of Diaa Attiya, who was killed in the December 4 shooting.


Witnesses say the incident began as a quarrel between a policeman and a queuing motorist who had been prevented from filling up a jerry-can in addition to his car’s petrol tank – a regulation designed to stop people buying more petrol than they need and then selling it by the roadside.


The policeman was mobbed by other motorists, many also with jerry-cans, who vented their anger on this lone figure of authority. When the police officer fired into the air to restore order, some in the crowd drew their own guns and shot back.


The Amal shoot-out underscores a grim joke among Baghdad residents, who say they spend their days doing one of two things - either waiting in lines of cars many kilometres long to buy petrol, or lying in hospital recovering from gunshot wounds following the quarrels that erupt in the queues.


The capital has endured chronic petrol shortages since the war. Sometimes petrol is relatively plentiful - only a month ago, the average time spent in a queue was down to just half an hour. Now, motorists say, the wait has climbed to nearly five hours, about as bad as it has been at any time since the war.


The seemingly endless recurrence of petrol shortages - the causes of which are rarely clear - are yet another reason why many Iraqis distrust pronouncements by the US-led coalition that life in their country is slowly returning to normal.


Tensions are worsened by the tendency of corrupt policemen to allow motorists to fill up jerry-cans if they know them, or if offered a bribe.


Petrol station shoot-outs are common throughout a city where much of the population is armed, and everyone is under intense stress.


"I've seen doctors and engineers and civil servants brandish their weapons without any restraint or reluctance," said Ahmed Jassem, who works at northern Baghdad's Kadhemiya filling station.


"What goes on these days shows the lack of solidarity between people," said taxi driver Ali Akram. "We need to cooperate to get through these hard times."


Iraqi oil ministry officials blame sabotage by anti-coalition insurgents and mechanical breakdowns for the petrol shortage.


Lack of fuel also creates a vicious circle with the electricity grid. Power outages mean that less oil can be extracted, refined, and distributed across Iraq, while the resulting fuel shortages mean that less electricity is generated.


When the power is out, petrol can't even be pumped to waiting motorists. "The power is on for no more than three hours at a stretch, so we can't keep the cars moving and filling up at a brisk pace," said Taha Abdel Karim, owner of the al-Mansour station in west Baghdad.


For people who have a job, the petrol shortage makes it hard to do a day's work. "We go to the petrol station at dawn and fill up the cars, but then we're late in to work thanks to the horrible traffic in the morning," said teacher Adel Jassem.


The unemployed - and they're estimated to account for 60 to 70 per cent of the working-age population - find that selling fuel at up to ten times the heavily subsidised prices at the petrol pump offers a rare opportunity to make some money.


Former army officer Mohammed Ismail now makes his living hawking black market fuel by the roadside. "I go to the station to fill my car with petrol, then I sell it [out of the petrol tank] right outside the station, and after that I go back to the station a second time to fill up the car again," he said.


The shortages are creating extra hazards on Iraq's already dangerous roads. Traffic policeman Riad Hussein says he's seen numerous accidents when "these people, who are playing around selling petrol, create traffic jams".


Amer Salman, a black market vender who sells petrol close to a filling station on the highway 30 kilometres north of Baghdad, admits that traders like him sometimes spill petrol onto the tarmac. During winter's heavy rains, the fuel mixes with water to make a slippery surface that can cause cars travelling at high speeds to flip over.


Naser Kadhem is a trainee journalist with IWPR in Baghdad.