The Critical Battle for Iraq's Energy
By Karl Vick
The Washington Post
Saturday 15 January 2005
Attacks by saboteurs cripple infrastructure.
Baghdad - The armed men waited until at least 10 tanker trucks were in line outside the huge refinery in the Sunni Triangle city of Baiji, a major source of gasoline for Iraq. Then they made their move: Arriving in a blue Opel sedan, their faces obscured by checkered head scarves and wraparound sunglasses, the insurgents charged into the road and began moving from truck to truck.
The truckers were in no position to resist. One by one, witnesses say, they handed over the paperwork that permitted them to leave the tank farm with a load of gasoline. When the gunmen had a fat sheaf of documents, they simply got back in their sedan and drove away, effectively shutting down one more strand of gasoline distribution in a country where energy has emerged as one of the war's most critical battlefields.
"I have been waiting here a week," said Hussein Awad, who had driven from Baghdad to fill a truck for the 7th of April service station last week. His beard was several days along and his ankle-length robe was dirty from a week of constant wear. Back in the capital, the gas lines were running three miles long.
"Every day I come here to sit and wait, wishing that those armed men will not show up so I can fill my tanker and go back to Baghdad," Awad said. "But they are here every day."
Frustrated Iraqi and U.S. officials say insurgents in recent months have displayed an impressive capacity to cripple Iraq's most vital infrastructure.
"What they're doing is focusing efforts on intelligent attacks on infrastructure, especially oil and electricity," said a senior U.S. diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The number of attacks is down, but the effectiveness of the attacks is up significantly."
The consequences have been evident across Iraq.
The biggest hit was on the national treasury. Almost the entire federal budget is generated by exports of crude oil, and, according to the Brookings Institution in Washington, revenue from oil exports in November dropped by nearly $700 million, almost 36 percent, from the previous month. The number of attacks on pipelines and other oil and gas infrastructure in November reached 30, almost tripling from October.
According to the State Department, exports rebounded slightly in December, but after attacks on pipelines in the northern and southern oil fields, early January exports skidded below even the November level, to fewer than 1 million barrels a day - less than half the current capacity.
To ordinary Iraqis, the attacks mean cascading hardships: Either they wait in day-long lines for heavily subsidized, 5 cents-a-gallon gasoline, or they pay black-market prices that run as high as several dollars.
Then the drivers probably return to dark homes. Power outages - some leaving Baghdad without electricity for more than a day at a time - accompany the fuel shortages, partly because generators in Iraq burn petroleum.
Insurgents have also attacked Iraq's power grid directly. A Jan. 7 strike on power lines between Baiji and Tikrit shut down the entire national system, according to an Electricity Ministry report.
A senior Iraqi official said the most effective attacks betrayed insider knowledge.
"When I see where some of these strikes go, it's obvious they knew exactly where to hit to have a maximum impact," the official said. But it remained unknown whether the technical knowledge came from current employees or officials of Saddam Hussein's deposed Baath Party government who could be working with insurgents.
U.S. commanders say embittered supporters of the previous government make up most of the insurgency. But religious extremists - including both Iraqis and foreigners, such as Osama bin Laden - have called for attacks on Iraq's infrastructure to weaken the U.S.-supported interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Before the U.S. offensive on Fallujah in November, local insurgents vowed to shift their attacks to oil facilities.
"They say, 'You work for the Americans and Ayad Allawi, you don't work for the people's interest,' " Khalid Mohammed, 45, said from the cab of a state-owned tanker delivering gasoline to a service station on Baghdad's south side. "But we work for people. We bring it to the gas station where people can get it."
Mohammed brought his haul from a refinery in nearby Dora; the road to Baiji "is dangerous," he said. "The mujaheddin steal trucks."
In urgent tones, the trucker listed the hazards facing fuel transporters in Iraq: Insurgents had blown up a car bomb inside another refinery in the Sunni Triangle a month earlier, he said. Armed men blocked a road to a loading station in Latifiyah, a town in the "triangle of death" south of Baghdad.
"Many trucks that belong to the government were stolen," Mohammed said. "We're getting more shortages every day of both trucks and fuel."
This week, Allawi predicted that the situation would begin improving within days. His government was importing as much gas, diesel fuel, kerosene and other refined products as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other neighbors would sell - and holding little back for reserves, government statistics showed.
Still, the Electricity Ministry reported four more power units shut down this week by fuel shortfalls, and outages increased again.
At a news conference Wednesday, Brig. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers explained that some of the power shortfalls were caused by the Iraqi government's decision to shut down some units for maintenance. The units had been neglected by Hussein's government. Scheduled maintenance reduced Iraq's power capacity from 6,000 megawatts to 5,000, he said. But another 1,400 megawatts were lost to "unscheduled maintenance," or breakdowns, and 600 more to insurgent attacks.
"They don't want to see a better life," Bostick said. "They don't like democracy. And the sad thing about it is they're attacking infrastructure."
But Iraqis said the problem was caused by constant over-promising, and that the interim government was reaping the political backlash for providing, less than three weeks from Iraq's first election in decades, half as much power as the country could produce.
"For almost two years we have been reading about so many megawatts have been added and so much will be added by next summer and so on," said Hayder Abbas, a college professor who lives in west Baghdad. "But in reality, the situation is exactly the opposite.
"With every setback in the electric power network, we are told it is the gas, or the crude oil or sabotage. But the fact is, electric power supplies are regressing, and the average citizen asks: When will the situation be normal again like in neighboring countries? Is this impossible? Why don't they tell us that? Then at least we won't hope for anything better."