For months now, Iraqis - especially in the North - have been struggling day after day to get gasoline for their vehicles. As VOA's Jeffrey Young reports, Iraqi drivers in the northern city of Erbil and elsewhere are forced to be resourceful, patient, and sometimes do business on the black market.
In Iraq, a combination of limited refining capacity attacks by insurgents, and alleged profiteering has created gas shortages. There are lines of cars at fuel stations that stretch sometimes for kilometers.
Ismail Aziz says he's been waiting for three days now to get some fuel in his car. “If I don't get gas from this station, I'll have to buy it on the black market,” he said.
The official price for fuel is 3,000 Iraqi Dinars, a bit over two U.S. dollars, and that's for 40 liters. Gas is rationed, and it takes coupons to get it. Fuel on the black market is much more expensive - as much as 7,000 Iraqi Dinars, or around $4.50 U.S. And, that only buys 20 liters.
It's called the black market, but it operates out in the open along a number of roadsides. Fuel trucks pull into places where men transfer the gasoline into drums, oftentimes while casually smoking cigarettes despite the hazards. Then smaller containers are filled and putout for sale.
Some of the hardest-hit Iraqi drivers run taxis. One man says the rationing system simply doesn't work for people like himself. “This 40 liters buy one day, enough one day,” he said. He says that without the black market, he couldn't keep his taxi going. But at the end of the day, the black market's costs have taken away money he needs for his family.
The same problem exists for those who have to fill propane canisters to heat their houses and fuel their stoves. The propane and gasoline black markets oftentimes sit side by side. There are a number reasons why there's a fuel shortage.
Iraq has massive amounts of crude oil, but not enough operating refineries. So in the north, crude oil is trucked to Turkey for refining into gasoline and then taken back to Iraq for sale. Crossing the border between the two countries takes time. Sometimes truck drivers wait for days.
On the Iraqi side of the border, the trucks then have to take winding roads through the mountains, or risk attacks by going through the troubled area around the city of Mosul.
There are also inequalities in how the fuel is allocated. If one works for the Iraqi government there are special fuel stations where gas is half the price and there are usually no lines. This government employee says he has enough coupons to last him and his family for six months and he never runs out of gas for his car. Despite his good fortunes, he still wishes for the late 1990s when he says gas was much cheaper.
One taxi driver agrees and blames the 2003 Iraq war for his problems. “Kerosene that we use in our homes was 100 Dinars in Saddam's time now it's up to 600 Dinars," he said. "We're sorry he’s gone. Americans promised to help us.”
But not everyone feels that way. Although one man has a trunk full of empty containers and needs fuel desperately, he says he appreciates what America and other countries have done. “I would like to thank Mr. Bush and the British Government for helping us get rid of Saddam but we need more help in building more refineries,” he said.
Many say the security situation in Iraq has to improve before more refining and oil production can take place. As for the black market, it reflects both the desperation of motorists and the lure of cash for opportunists in a largely poor country.
VOA's Craig Fitzpatrick provided video for this report.