Soldiers help Iraqis with frustrating process of buying gas
January 10, 2005
BAGHDAD — The price of gasoline in this oil-rich nation’s capital isn’t only measured in dinars. It is also measured in hours.
Throw in a little corruption, inefficiency and insufficient infrastructure, and that price per liter skyrockets for the average Iraqi.
At the gas station on southern Baghdad’s al Daura road, for example, a tank of gas that costs the equivalent of a handful of dollars involves lines that can produce waits of more than 20 hours.
And it’s not just the Iraqis who are involved in this day-to-day struggle. Nearly every daylight patrol of Company B of the 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment from Fort Hood, Texas, involves the soldiers inserting themselves in the fight with black marketers, gas station operators, security and even Iraqi police.
“I’d say 20 percent of their time — a little less than an hour out of every patrol,” company commander Capt. Dave Maxwell said when asked how much his soldiers spend dealing with fuel problems.
Iraqis, he said, use petroleum products for many things: kerosene for heating; propane for heating and cooking; and gasoline for automobiles and electricity generators.
“It’s important to them, basically every aspect of their lives,” he said. “This can really put a guy in a bad mood if he doesn’t have the things he needs to take care of his family.”
Many of the problems don’t come from a lack of gasoline, but rather from a range of problems including a limited number gas stations.
“For an area that has this many people in it, it has only one gas station,” said Maxwell. “[In the United States] an area this size would have 20 gas stations. They don’t have the infrastructure to distribute gas fast enough.”
For a few hours Wednesday, gasoline distribution took a turn for the better at the al Doura station.
Dozens of cars were lined up outside, waiting for gas, as they do nearly every day. Others trying to beg or bribe their way in line caused traffic jams along a main road through the area. And black marketers just to the east caused even more traffic.
So Company B soldiers were given the order to straighten things out.
The black marketers were chased away and their gasoline containers given to passing vehicles. Then the soldiers moved onto the station itself, closing it down for a few minutes to clear all the traffic, then letting in a handful of cars every few minutes. The soldiers themselves started pumping gas — at no cost — to smiling, grateful drivers.
Some car owners had to push their vehicles up to the pump, but the logjam was eventually lessened, and for a few hours this Baghdad neighborhood had an efficiently run gas station.
The soldiers, well aware that station workers often overcharge motorists or charge them a fee just to get in line, felt no guilt over giving away the gas.
When the soldiers returned the next morning to survey the station for future improvements, dozens of cars waited in line, black marketers sold their fuel along the shoulder and traffic was again all jammed up.
Business, it seemed, was back to normal.
Curbing black-market gas
Some Iraqis are cashing in on the city’s limited number of gas stations.
Black marketers are seen on many streets and highways in the city, with their trademark length of hose with a cut-off plastic bottle top for a funnel and large plastic containers full of gasoline.
They can charge whatever they want for the gasoline, but usually sell it around double than the average rate. Though prices vary, it’s still much less than the U.S. average of $1.80 per gallon.
“I see it as capitalism,” said Capt. Dave Maxwell, commander of Company B, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment. “They’re trying to feed their families.”
But many of these energy entrepreneurs run afoul of the military because they cause traffic jams that restricts military and civilian traffic.
Insurgents will also set up black market stations along the main routes to gather information on military traffic or to set up roadside bombs.
“The problem with them in high traffic areas is that they’re used by insurgents who are watching patrols or are setting [improvised explosive devices],” Maxwell said. “They’ll set up … place IEDs, then move 400 meters down the road.”
So when patrols come across the gas vendors along the main routes, they are chased from the location and many times the gasoline will be given — free of charge — to passing motorists, temporarily alleviating the problem.
— Jason Chudy