US Officials Sound Alarm
Over Iraq Fuel Crisis

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- U.S. officials in Baghdad fear that a fuel crisis, which has left Iraqi homes cold and dark and drivers waiting days for petrol, may inflame unrest before next month's election.
"If the current situation does not improve quickly, public confidence in the government may deteriorate significantly," a diplomat wrote this week in a note circulated among the U.S.-led coalition occupying Iraq and obtained by Reuters.
Blaming sabotage, banditry and guerrilla attacks on convoys, the note urged "extraordinary efforts" to ease shortages in Baghdad and elsewhere that have sent fuel prices soaring.
In another setback for U.S. efforts to win the confidence of local people, an American sergeant was convicted of murdering an injured 16-year-old Iraqi in what troops had called a "mercy killing"; many Iraqis complain other killings go unpunished.
The incident, during a Shi'ite uprising in August in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, happened after U.S. troops opened heavy fire on a suspected militants.
Local people said afterwards that they were simply overnight garbage collectors. Six other Iraqis were also killed.
Staff Sergeant Johnny Horne, 30, pleaded guilty to murder at his Baghdad court martial and was to be sentenced later.
For Iraqis, who can vote for a national assembly on Jan. 30, shortages of electricity and fuel are, aside from insecurity in much of the country, prime complaints since the war.
With temperatures dropping close to freezing, electricity seems in shorter supply even than a few months ago, despite U.S. efforts to repair war and sabotage damage. Typically many households have two hours of power before a four-hour blackout.
A State Department spokesman said the fuel shortage was part of the security problem the Iraqis and multinational force were working to overcome.
"It's a reminder that the job is not yet done," he said. "The longer-term issue is confronting the insurgency, training Iraqi security forces, taking the fight to the enemy, which we're doing," he added.
The latest energy problems come as sources in Congress said the U.S. government, facing mounting violence and demands from troops for better equipment, is assembling a funding package for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan that could outstrip earlier estimates, by as much as $75 billion to $100 billion.
Iraq has oil reserves second only to Saudi Arabia but wars and sanctions have so crippled its refineries that it relies heavily on imports along guerrilla- and bandit-prone highways as well as pumping fuel along vulnerable pipelines.
On Friday, the North Oil Company said it was halting output at its baiji refinery because of sabotage. An explosion also hit a pipeline near Baquba, northwest of Baghdad.
Baiji and Baquba are both areas populated by Iraq's once dominant Sunni Arab minority, where loyalties to Saddam Hussein were once strong and where the insurgency against the occupation and pro-U.S. Iraqis is in full swing. U.S. and Iraqi officials fear violence could increase as the election nears.
The cost of paraffin for heating has risen fivefold in the capital and bottled cooking gas tenfold, causing serious hardship for the many Iraqis without jobs or regular income.
Lines several km (miles) long snake from the city's petrol stations where drivers can fill up for a subsidized 3 U.S. cents a liter. The choice is to pay 20 times as much to profiteers.
Anger has boiled over, fights and shooting have broken out.
The note circulated among coalition officials said frequent sabotage of supply pipelines to Baghdad's Dora refinery and attacks on and intimidation of tanker drivers are key problems.
"Extraordinary efforts should continue until a robust supply of products and an effective distribution system are re-established," the official wrote.
Though many Iraqis welcomed the overthrow of Saddam, public sentiment toward U.S. forces is also colored by revelations of their abuse of detainees at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison and other accounts of maltreatment -- including this week's report of special forces troops using Taser stun guns on prisoners.
U.S. soldiers can be quick to open fire, operating as they do under constant threat of attack. The consequences of errors and crossfire can be fatal for innocent civilians.
Witnesses to the incident in Sadr City said troops from Staff Sergeant Horne's unit opened fire with heavy machineguns and rifles on the garbage trucks, setting at least one alight. Local people said none of the occupants was armed, however.
Accounts of unarmed Iraqis being killed by U.S. forces are legion, but the numbers involved is the source of great dispute.
U.S. officials dismissed a recent medical research report which suggested tens of thousands may have died in U.S. military action since Saddam was overthrown 20 months ago. One research group,, which uses media sources, puts Iraqi civilian deaths since the U.S. invasion at about 15,000.
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