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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 June 2007, 13:36 GMT 14:36 UK
Battling Baghdad's petrol crisis
By Andrew North
BBC News, Baghdad

Filling up your car in Baghdad these days means organising a minor expedition, with the capital in the grip of a new fuel crisis.

Baghdad petrol queue - June 2007
Long petrol queues are a common sight in Baghdad
Fuel shortages have become a fact of life for Iraqis since the US and British invasion, despite their country's vast oil reserves.

But the situation has dramatically worsened in the past month.

The government blames the continuing violence and particularly recent attacks on major road bridges which have seriously disrupted traffic into the city.

Long queues of cars outside petrol stations, snaking round several blocks, have again become a regular sight.

Stories of people waiting all day in the blazing summer heat are common.

They are at serious risk too. As the lines of cars have grown, so too have the number of insurgent attacks.

There were two bombings aimed at petrol queues last weekend in which at least 10 people were killed and injured.

Even then they often have to drive away on the last few drops of petrol in their tanks, because the pumps are dry by the time their turn comes.

Detailed plans

Those who can afford it get round the problem by buying all their fuel from black market sellers.

But the price is high - more than double the government subsidised price of 400 dinars a litre, about 30 cents.

Cheap in comparison to Western prices, but not for poorly paid Iraqis.

To try to beat the petrol queues and stay safe, people now have to make detailed plans.

One of our office staff - I will call him Mahmoud - got up at 0330 recently, hoping to be first in line at a nearby state-owned petrol station.

Bridge destroyed at Mahmudiya, south of Baghdad - 10/06/2007
Attacks on bridges are cutting the flow of petrol across Iraq
But the city is under curfew at that time and there is an Iraqi army checkpoint outside.

It would be dangerous to go there without having secured their permission beforehand.

So the evening before, Mahmoud went to the checkpoint with a group of neighbours to clear their plans.

There was greater safety they decided in going as a group.

Next morning they all set off together. After identifying themselves to the soldiers they moved to the petrol station.

But other drivers had already got there. Many others.

Generators needed

Three hours later, the petrol station opened and one of its staff - whose sole job is to supervise the queue - walked down the line giving a number to each car.

The petrol lines have become very organised now.

"I was given number 131," Mahmoud told me with a resigned shrug. The number was written in green ink on his windscreen.

"When the man returned, he said the last car in the queue was number 900."

The queue went back through a whole neighbourhood of side streets.

Four hours after that, eight hours after he had woken up, Mahmoud finally reached the pumps and filled up.

But the attendants were rationing each car to 50 litres.

Baghdad petrol queue - June 2007
Petrol queues are a tempting target for insurgents
Anyone coming in with jerry cans was turned away, to prevent them selling the fuel on the black market.

But petrol stations are more sympathetic to the lines of women you often see queuing up with smaller plastic cans.

They need the fuel to keep their generators running to power appliances such as fridges and air conditioners.

Summer always brings a hike in fuel demand because with electricity supplies as patchy as ever, most Baghdadis still depend on generators.

"At night, you often can't sleep unless you have the air conditioning," says Mahmoud. "Especially the children."

Bridge attacks

Iraq's oil ministry admits there is a crisis.

But a spokesman said "there is little we can do" because of the attacks on bridges which have seriously disrupted fuel tanker traffic into the city".

Extra army checkpoints set up to prevent more such bombings have made things worse, with many fuel trucks not being allowed through.

There have also been more attacks on pipelines.

"It is too dangerous for our engineers to reach one of the damaged sections near Mahmudiya" - an area south of Baghdad that is a known insurgent hotbed - said the oil ministry spokesman.

With three more attacks on bridges leading into Baghdad in the past three days there is little chance the situation will improve.

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