BAGHDAD, Dec 21 (IPS) – For two days demonstrations have continued across Iraq in protest against the government’s decision to raise the price of petrol, cooking and heating fuels.
With costs increased up to nine-fold, Iraq’s oil minister, Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum has threatened to resign. Yet this has done nothing to quell the outburst of anger in Iraqis towards the sudden and drastic price hike.
Iraq’s Oil Ministry spokesman Assem Jihad told reporters that the Cabinet raised the prices in order to curb a growing black market. Jihad said that kerosene prices were raised fivefold, cooking gas threefold, and diesel was raised nine-fold.
Iraqi response to the recent hiking of fuel prices has been one of indignation and disapproval.
“Are we responsible for fuelling the American occupation forces with petrol from our refineries?” asked Akram Mohamed, a consumer. “Can you believe they receive our gasoline then use it to kill our people? This is something unacceptable to every honorable Iraqi!”
“It’s a gift from the government after the elections,” said Mohamed sarcastically, “Nobody wants the responsibility of raising the fuel prices and they are afraid to announce it. That’s why they raised it the day after the elections.”
Mohamed, who told IPS he had been driving his car as a taxi for decades, believed the incoming government did not want to be responsible for raising the fuel costs and believed members in the current government were following orders from the U.S.
“This is the kind of sovereignty we Iraqis have,” he added, while waiting in a fuel line.
Announcement of the price increase on the Dec. 19 brought clashes between police and demonstrators in Amarah, 290 km southeast of Baghdad. When demonstrators refused to leave the front of the provincial government headquarters, scuffles ensued.
Meanwhile in Tikrit, over 500 people protested, while demonstrators marched in the streets of Najaf, Suleiminiyah, Kut, Kerbala, Baghdad, Samawa and many smaller cities.
On the same day roads and petrol stations in Basra were blocked by hundreds of demonstrators who burned tires and protested in front of the governor’s headquarters.
The price for a liter of locally produced fuel was increased seven-fold to around 12 cents per liter.
While black market prices are already eight times the amount of those at petrol stations, some stations in Baghdad were charging 11 times the amount of the normal price, a phenomenon which led many Iraqis to believe some of the stations were taking advantage of the already huge price increase.
Ahmed Chalabi, accused of providing false information to the Bush Administration which led to the invasion of Iraq and who is now Iraq’s deputy Prime Minister, justified the government’s decision by stating that 330 million dollar of the funds generated by the increase would “be redistributed to poor families.”
“I heard Ahmed Chalabi say that those of us who don’t have cars are missing out on how the government is helping the Iraqi people,” said 36 year-old Ismael Hamoudi, “To hell with that bastard for lying about helping when so many people are now suffering; this will affect everything in the market. Now all our food will be more expensive since it is brought from outside the city and who will pay for the increased transportation cost? We will, because everything will be more expensive now!”
The Iraqi government in Baghdad has defended the move, saying it was made in order to help jump-start the flagging economy in Iraq by generating 500 million dollar with the move.
Shortly after protesters in Basra temporarily blocked the main road between Basra, Amarah and Baghdad, the governor of Basra, Mohammed al- Waeli, called an emergency provincial council meeting. During the meeting members decided not to honor the price increases, and orders were given to petrol stations to respect the decision.
Amjad Abdul Qadr, a 21 year-old college student at Jadriya University in Baghdad, expressed deep concern over the higher prices.
“I’m filling my father’s car now but we have no extra money anymore,” he told IPS, “How can we exist with prices so high?”
Since the regime of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi government has subsidized fuel prices. However, today the U.S.-backed Iraqi government is under pressure from the World Bank, headed by former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz, to cut the subsidies which have been keeping the fuel prices down.
Iraq is currently importing nearly half of all its fuel, with the government spending over 6 billion dollar each year on the importing of oil products from other countries.
Amjad’s father, 55 year-old teacher Mr. Abdul Qadr said, “Those bastards ruling Iraq now are animals. I will have to keep my son from going to school so he can work with me. I have seven girls to finance, to hell with school. We can’t find bread to feed them.”
Qadr expressed worries common to many Iraqis since the announcement was made by the government: that he should sell his car, take another job, find a way to make both ends meet.
“We don’t have our car for entertainment but for survival,” he added, “What I would like to tell the new government is that by doing this now they are digging their graves, but they should know there will be a day when everybody will have his revenge on them.”
Less than three days after the initial announcement was made in Baghdad, at least two more of Iraq’s 18 provinces have, like Basra, rejected the price hike.
With the southern provinces Misan, Basra and Dhi Qar having refused to implement the government increase and Iraqis around the country seething with anger, it appears likely other provinces will join in the rejection.