The Failed Surge, as Iraq Lives Without Electricity

WSJ Digital Network

September 2, 2008 – U.S. policy makers and American consumers in the past few months have been immersed in concerns about soaring oil prices and how to lower them. Fuel prices are also expected to be a focal issue when American voters cast their ballots in the upcoming presidential elections.

But while I can understand Americans’ fears about fuel prices and availability, I have a harder time understanding why Iraqis — with their oases of crude oil reserves and untapped oilfields in the south and the north — have had to put up with high oil prices and severe shortages of gasoline, diesel and cooking gas.

A report issued recently by the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated that Iraq’s government could generate between $73.5 billion and $86.2 billion in total revenue for 2008, with oil exports accounting for $66.5 billion to $79.2 billion.

And yet ordinary Iraqis still face fuel shortage and high rates. These days, there are three-hour lines of cars queued up for gas, according to one friend of mine in Baghdad. He said officially the government blames this problem on the lack of power that gas pumps need to operate. In Baghdad, he said, people are only getting two hours of electricity a day. The government says the nearly total absence of power in the capital is due to the lack of new power projects.

My friend said his family paid as much as 30,000 Iraqi dinars, or over $25, for a cooking gas cylinder last winter. That’s roughly 15 times the highest price before the war started, and extortionate given a cylinder doesn’t usually last more than one week. When I asked my friend why people don’t protest the situation, he said they don’t dare to open their mouths for fear of getting into trouble with the government.

Since the U.S. invasion in 2003, the Iraqi government has time and again ascribed the fuel crisis in the country to insurgents’ attacks on oil and gas pipelines, outmoded and in some cases moribund refineries, as well as mismanagement and corruption among Iraqi oil officials. Some of those officials, according to many media reports, siphoned off oil to sell at a profit.

In Saddam’s era, there were times like these too, when Iraqis had to contend with finding enough fuel at relatively reasonable rates. I recall war times were especially hard.

Right before the first Gulf War, families in my neighborhood and elsewhere in Baghdad scurried to stash not just staple foods such as rice and flour, but also fuel, in anticipation of a U.S.-led military attack.

During the attack, which occurred in the winter of 1991, Iraqis were in dire need of heating and cooking fuel. My family and my uncle’s family went to stay with relatives in Baqouba, 30 miles northeast of Baghdad. There was no electricity in the two-story house where we stayed, so we spent a month or so on dated kerosene-operated lanterns. view more for understanding more information related to electric engineering and job related post.  The longer the war lasted, the more worried we grew about our depleting fuel. At one point, we lived on bread; we had only one cooking gas cylinder left and used it only for making bread, because we were afraid it would drain.

We started to get used to living in complete darkness. Every night before we went to sleep, we would snuff out the lanterns in the house. That was not only to avoid being hit by American pilots who might mistake the light for an anti-aircraft artillery spot, but also because we wanted to save kerosene. Nobody knew how long the war would last.

My family went back to Baghdad while the war was still going on. The first day, we had to borrow kerosene from our neighbor to start a fire to make bread. We stood in line the next day and got some kerosene ourselves, but then that ran out, too. Sometimes the gas stations were closed or would run out of gas; sometimes you could wait all day and still not get it. On those days we lived on the raw vegetables and fruits we could afford to buy. There was no canned food where I lived, so we could not just buy cooked, canned food and eat it cold. If it existed elsewhere, I’m sure it was too expensive.

Even when the war ended, we still had to spend a few months with no power at all or with regular outages, as power plants were usually early targets. Different neighborhoods had different outage schedules and we soon came to know intuitively when to expect a power cut. Frustrated, people started to joke about how Baghdad looked at night like a flickering tree from atop the Saddam Tower.

There was always a post-war fuel crisis in Iraq. After the first Gulf War, two friends and I used to load a wooden cart with empty kerosene jugs and empty gas cylinders once a week at dawn and push it a couple of miles to get to a gas station where rumor had it that there was fuel. When we got there, there usually were crowds of people already lined up. We would wait for hours and often get back home when it was dark. On the days we went looking for gas, we didn’t eat lunch because we didn’t want to give up our spot in line.

In the ensuing years, there were times when the situation went from bad to worse. When Iraq was cordoned off by the international community, Saddam’s regime subsisted by funneling Iraq’s oil and power resources to neighboring countries. Jordan was a prime destination. In return, the Iraqis were able to get some food and medical aid via Jordan despite the sanctions. Rumors abounded among Iraqis about Saddam giving the Jordanians our oil at nominal rates or free of charge while we had to put up with long waits at gas stations and frequent power outages. People were furious but couldn’t do anything to change things.

Saddam’s propaganda machines were feeding us the usual: We had fuel shortages because the imperialist U.S. had bombed our pipelines and refineries.

Compounding the problem, Iraqi cab drivers seized the opportunity for a profit, and began smuggling gas and diesel in their extra tanks to sell in oil hungry countries such as Jordan. I knew a truck driver who used to tell stories about how most drivers like him who worked on the Baghdad-Amman route made most of their income by smuggling fuel in their tanks, which they sold when they got to Jordan.

And while the average household income for many Iraqis has at least quintupled in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion, Iraqis’ quest for cheaply accessible fuel has just gotten harder. Iraqis imported such an insane number of cars to Baghdad right after Saddam’s fall that it became impossible to drive in the congested streets. Overnight, the lines at the pump got impossibly longer, and black market fuel dealers became ubiquitous.

When I left Iraq in 2004, fuel prices and availability weren’t as bad as they are now. Given the global race for fuel, and Iraqi leaders’ indecision about sharing the country’s resources — oil among them — fuel prices are unlikely to abate anytime soon for Iraqis.

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