- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 19, 2005

QAYYARAH, Iraq — U.S. forces are cracking down on an unexpected problem in this oil-rich country — gasoline bootlegging.

On any day in many Iraqi cities, men with plastic containers full of gas line the roads outside gas stations, offering the same product for a much higher price but faster. Motorists pull up, hand a wad of dinars out the window, and wait as the bootlegger fills the tank using a funnel and a hose.

Filling your tank illegally takes only minutes, but costs as much as 8,000 dinars ($5.50), whereas a legal tank of gas might cost half as much, but requires hours of waiting in lines that stretch as long as a half-mile.

Long lines at an inadequate number of gas stations — a result of decades of underinvestment by dictator Saddam Hussein’s government — have given rise to thousands of illicit gas stands.

In Nineveh and Diyala provinces, U.S. troops are shutting down bootleggers and giving their gas away for free in an effort to control the price of gasoline, protect the livelihoods of gas-station owners and employees, and in the long term, reduce the wait and encourage investment in gas distribution.

In the town of Qayyarah, south of Mosul, recently, Capt. Ryan Gist of the 25th Infantry Division watched as motorists filled up at a dilapidated gas station.

“Before, there were a lot of bootleggers here. But we gave all their gas away for free. Now things have gotten better,” he said.

Part of the problem was that bootleggers in the area were contributing to the long lines that drove their businesses. In many cases, bootleggers simply bought their gas from a station then walked a few yards down the road and sold it for a 100 percent profit.

Now, in towns around Mosul, the wait for gas is getting shorter. More reliable shipments of gas — as a result of the improving security situation particularly along Iraq’s critical oil pipelines — means retailers can sell more cheaply.

Spc. Harvey Blankenship, 22, checked the price of a gallon of unleaded at the Qayyarah station: 200 dinars (14 cents).

“That’s not bad,” he said.

The average working Iraqi earns around 2 million dinars, or $1,400, per year.

The crackdown on bootlegging and easing gas supply is also an element in fighting the insurgency in Iraq.

Gas stations with long lines are “a big target” for attacks, said Sgt. 1st Class James Kates of the 1st Infantry Division, in Baqouba, in Diyala province. He said the military closed gas stations during critical events to spare them from attacks.

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