- 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
- "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,"
- EXPENSIVE PROBLEMS
- 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
- 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.
- UNEASY RELATIONSHIP
- 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, iraqbodycount.org,
which uses media sources, puts Iraqi civilian deaths since the U.S. invasion
at about 15,000.
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