|Power shortages and black market drive Baghdad to consider oil rationing|
|Most citizens face power cuts and long gas lines in the oil-rich country
Iraq may have the world's second largest oil reserves, but top government officials here are looking into creating a coupon program to ration fuel for next winter.
Rationing aims to put a dent into the black market sale of oil products "and lead to more equitable distribution for all Iraqis," Petroleum Ministry spokesman Assem Jihad said.
Since the April 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein's regime the supply of oil products, especially gasoline, has been effectively - if not officially - rationed.
Iraqis have been forced to stand in lines of up to two hours at the pump to get fuel.
The alternative: buy gas on the black market at dramatically higher prices.
While the liter of gas at the pump is 20 dinars ($0.01), on the black market it sells for 500 dinars.
Petroleum Ministry officials have formed a committee aimed at creating a system of coupons to ration petroleum products, especially gasoil and kerosene used for heating and running power generators.
"We expect that system to be ready before next October," Jihad said. Jihad added that a coupon system has been used successfully in the Kurdish semi-autonomous region.
The demand for fuel, especially gasoline, has been aggravated by the import of more than one million cars after the fall of Saddam, Jihad said.
Aside from difficulties getting fuel and water, Iraqis also have to put up with long periods without electricity, which in turn aggravates the fuel shortage.
In Baghdad, power blackouts last up to 20 hours a day - all at the height of summer - with temperatures around 38 degrees Celsius even after sunset.
Legislators have raised the issue in Parliament, but often their complaints run so long that Speaker Hajem al-Hassani has to interrupt and demand that they adhere to their allotted three-minute limit.
Samira al-Moussaui, an MP with the conservative Shiite majority, believes the government needs to start holding someone accountable for energy shortcomings.
"The government's first duty is to improve the infrastructure in Baghdad," said Moussaui.
"We have not asked for anyone to be accountable for this over the last two years," she said, referring to the period under the U.S.-led administration and the interim government that followed, which ended in May.
Another MP, Faridun Abdel Kader, said action is needed now because "anyone who studies the projects at the Ministry of Electricity will realize that ten years from now Iraq's situation will not change.
"That doesn't surprise me because the ministry has been unable even to re-establish the same level of energy supply that existed before the fall of the (Saddam) regime. What does surprise me is our silence in Parliament on this important issue," he added.
According to a recent UN study, three-quarters of Iraqi homes suffer from electrical blackouts.
Blackouts hit the capital especially hard, where it affects 92 percent of the Baghdad's 1.1 million households.
In a display of rising frustrations, residents of the poor Baghdad Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City recently physically attacked a government worker who came to demand that they pay overdue electrical bills.
Twenty-nine percent of Baghdad households have purchased generators in order to make do. But the generators need fuel to operate, perpetuating a vicious circle.
Beirut,08 01 2005
The Daily Star