- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2003

BAGHDAD — The United States has begun to import gasoline and propane from neighboring countries into Iraq, in an attempt to alleviate an increasingly frenzied fuel shortage.Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and even Turkey this week began donating thousands of gallons of refined oil to Iraq — the country with the planet’s second-largest oil reserves. The United States will buy additional supplies adequate to meet needs for a month or longer, according to Iraqi news accounts.Long lines and anxious drivers clogged six-lane highways throughout Baghdad yesterday, and around the country many gas stations were simply closed.To many Iraqis, the sudden absence of gasoline and erratic price gouging was proof that the United States was diverting their country’s oil resources.”We had all the gas under Saddam and all the gas all the way through the war,” said Jabeel Tawfik, who said he was reluctant to drive his car to work because the gas lines were so onerous. “I did not believe that the Americans came here to take our oil, but now I see this, and this is what I think.”U.S. officials — who have repeatedly said they are protecting the oil fields and infrastructure for the Iraqi people — are at a loss to explain exactly why there is such an acute gas shortage in such an oil-rich land.Oil storage tanks near the refineries are mostly filled to capacity. And the nation has not exported any oil since U.S. forces shut down a pipeline to Syria near the end of the war.The problem, in part, is that so many tanker trucks have disappeared — either destroyed by the war or stolen immediately afterward — that the fuel cannot be delivered to the pumps.”There is no room in the pipeline, the pipeline is full, and it will have to be emptied out before there can be more processing,” said Lt. Col. William Lupton of the 354 Civil Affairs Brigade, which is focusing on Baghdad and its environs.On Monday, departing U.S. forces distributed their own excess gas for free to Iraqi motorists, some of whom had waited all night in violation of a U.S.-imposed curfew.The tankers had to be emptied for transport in any case, a U.S. military spokesman explained. He said each car got a maximum of 8 gallons, but not everyone could be served.The Pentagon’s Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, or ORHA, has started Task Force RIO, or “Restore Iraqi Oil.”Senior RIO officials have been working daily with the newly reconstituted Oil Ministry to distribute imported or donated fuel until the Iraqi industry can be resurrected.Task Force RIO experts say the refineries, some of which are under the care of U.S. contractors, could be up and running in about a month. But that does not solve the distribution problems in a system where gas used to cost as little as 4 cents a gallon.”We have to find the trucks, and I think we will,” said Army Capt. Mark St. Laurent, who works with ORHA to address economic aspects of Baghdad’s recovery.”When the drivers weren’t paid for two months, they took their trucks home with them. The departments that were smart enough to get their trucks back before the war were also smart enough to lock them up outside Baghdad. Now that we’re paying people again, they’re bringing the vehicles back.”

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