Fuel Crisis Freezes Life

BAQUBA — It’s turning out to be about the hardest winter Abu Muslih has known. Too often it’s a choice between buying food and medicines, and buying kerosene to keep his children warm.

“I see them feeling cold, so I go out to buy kerosene at any price,” Muslih, a 49-year-old city employee told IPS. “My salary cannot pay for kerosene. So I use my savings, or try to avoid other necessities.”

This is a problem in home after home in this city of about 300,000 located 40 km north of Baghdad, in the violence and unemployment ridden Diyala province.

“When we can, we burn wood to keep our houses warm,” says city resident Abu Nasem. It is hardly the best choice. “Since there are no fireplaces in our houses, wood fire can be harmful and dangerous.”

And there is fuel needed to cook with. “Iraqis mainly use gas cookers, and the price of a container may reach 35 dollars,” resident Jafar Nadem told IPS. “This kind of price is very high in relation to the income of any family. Large families may use three or four containers a month.” Prices are high, and supply low. Kerosene shortages last all winter now; shortage of other fuel, all year. The occupation and the conditions it has created have much to do with the shortages.

“Many of the refineries have come under the control of the Mehdi militia (of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr),” Mohammed al-Neemy, an employee at a petrol station in Baquba told IPS. Normally, he said, each petrol station needs a couple of 36,000-litre tankers daily. But these days all of the city gets on average a tanker a day – and not all of that gets to the petrol stations.

“Petrol station owners sell it in the black market before it reaches the city,” an employee in an oil company who spoke on condition of anonymity told IPS. “These owners have become millionaires in the years of occupation.”

Petrol is sold on the black market in 15-litre cans. “I buy a 15-litre can for anything from 20 to 28 dollars a day,” resident Hussein Fadhly told IPS. “The prices differ from time to time.”

Fadhly estimates that only 10 percent of the cars in the city remain on the streets. “Most petrol stations are closed,” he said. “People now leave their cars at home and go to work by bus or taxi.” If they can find them.

“It has become impractical for taxi drivers to buy petrol at such high prices because we find that we earn less than the cost of petrol,” 47-year-old taxi driver Kadhim Zgair told IPS.

“I’ve been a taxi driver for more than 25 years, but now I cannot earn my family’s living,” said taxi driver Radef Omran. Naeem Taban, another taxi driver, said “I have stopped going to the petrol station. The majority of the drivers are now jobless.”

People have begun to use animal-drawn carts to move people and goods, and sometimes even as ambulances. Many feel nostalgic about the days of Saddam Hussein when petrol was in abundance, at just a few pennies a litre.

The little petrol that arrives finds many uses besides transport. “It is used for generators when electricity shuts down,” resident Ibrahim Ali said. And scarcity has made that use too minimal.

Petrol scarcity has a knock-on effect on most businesses. “Transport costs have increased terribly, and it has become unaffordable to transport goods from one province to another,” grocer Hatem Nijris told IPS. “This has affected the price of goods for the consumer.”

Some areas of Baghdad, and other cities under the control of the Mehdi Army militia are not suffering as much from the fuel crisis because the militia distributes fuel at lower prices.

(*Ahmed, our correspondent in Iraq’s Diyala province, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who has reported extensively from Iraq and the Middle East)