Life in the gas lane tests Iraqis

It's 10 a.m. and relative calm reigns over the fortress that is Yarmuk gas station in the upscale western Baghdad neighborhood of Al Mansour. Surrounded by low concrete barriers, spools of razor wire, and several slick-looking members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC), the station looks like a military outpost planted along a busy city street.

The calm is unnatural because the station was supposed to open three hours ago. But it's running on empty and awaiting the morning shipment. A line of cars stretches well down the block. Most of the drivers have been there for two hours already, and Bilal, an ICDC soldier, politely fends off a stream of inquiries with assurances that the tanker will arrive in "a half hour, God willing."

Such is life on any given day at one of Iraq's countless gas stations. In a country with some of the world's largest reserves of natural gas, fuel shortages - and the inconveniences that go with them - are part of the daily landscape. Iraq has had postwar problems transporting and refining the crude that flows so richly. Saboteurs have targeted pipelines, and Iraq's antiquated refineries have been running below capacity.

So drivers wait. Sweat dripping from their brows. Feet fidgeting with the pedals. It's enough to make any Iraqi want to trade his car for a good pair of walking shoes. The Ministry of Petroleum recently established an alternating daily ration system based on whether the car's license ends with an even or odd number. Each car is allowed only eight gallons.

The reasons customers endure the wait rather than turn to the thriving black market aren't hard to understand. Gas from stations is nearly free - a legally mandated 20 Iraqi dinars (about 1 cent) per liter. Black-market prices range from 250 to 600 dinars per liter. Despite the consumer forbearance, Bilal has no doubts what would happen if Yarmuk and other Baghdad gas stations weren't under constant armed guard. "It would be a massacre," he chuckles.

Faces all around brighten up as a 9,000-gallon tanker truck rumbles up the street. Soon the station is humming.

Still, manager Ayad Moustafa Shaker doesn't see the day coming anytime soon when his station will be able to function without the constant presence of the ICDC troops - and the routine daily check-ins by US soldiers in tanks. "The people are still too tense," he said. "I need protection."

The situation isn't nearly as harmonious at the small, privately run Ateyfiya station in the poor Shiite neighborhood of Qadhamiya. At 12:30 p.m., cars line the street.

This station's owners have found themselves facing a looming dispute with the Ministry of Petroleum. The day before, a ministry official stopped in, announcing that their 15-year contract, in effect for seven months, was being canceled and the station was being reclaimed. No reason was given, the owners said, claiming that ministry officials hope to squeeze them out and install cronies in a sweetheart deal. "There are mafias inside the Ministry of Petroleum," says station manager Qais Abu Muhammed. "Things like this never happened, even under Saddam."

Ministry of Petroleum inspector Salah Hassan was unable to comment on the specifics of the Ateyfiya case. But he said the private owners are notorious for diverting stock to the black market and encouraging the shortages. He sounded almost sympathetic - saying the state-run economics of their situation make some corruption almost mandatory. "The legal path won't cover their bills," he said.

At 2:30 p.m., the station is down to 1,000 gallons - almost the minimum required to maintain pump pressure.

Into the midst of this mess come two tanks from 3rd Brigade 13th Armor Division on a routine daily check-in. The soldiers are quickly sucked into a mediating role. "Right now we are the biggest people on the block," says Maj. Shawn Mahana, an Army civil-affairs officer. "Over time, [the ICDC] is going to have to acquire the confidence and trust of the Iraqi people."

Often, despite best intentions, the fuel simply runs out. By 4:30 p.m., the Yarmuk station has stopped pumping; about 20,000 gallons were sold that day. There will not be another daily shipment, as the tankers don't run at night for safety reasons. Mr. Shaker laments the circumstances but professes optimism, and credits the influence of the Army presence.

No such optimism reigns in Qadhamiya. At 7 p.m., a group of owners and managers slump sullenly in the station's office. The gas had run out by 3 p.m. They toss around the irony that a perfectly functional gas station has just been closed down amid a fuel crisis. "Even when the tanks were rolling through the streets, even through the looting, we kept this station open," says manager Abu Muhammed. "Now this is what shuts us down?"

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