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Iraqi Chaos Feeds a Black Market

No power? Ask the guy on the corner with a generator. No passport? Ask the guy in a stall. Need a job? You may have to do like them.

August 19, 2003|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Mohammed Walid sweats so that others can be spared a long, deadening wait under the white-hot glare of the desert sun.

Three or four times a day, the ex-bus driver joins the snaking lines for gasoline. He waits several hours in the withering heat, fills the tank of his minibus, then siphons the gasoline into plastic canisters. His three sons sell the fuel for five times the official price, while he goes back to the end of the line.

Thair Saleem, 45, also is making a living from Baghdad's chaos. Iraqis say the August heat can melt a nail on the inside of a door, yet electricity for fans, air conditioners and refrigerators is sporadic.

Saleem's big generator roosts on a street corner, with a chaotic cobweb of wires running to about 50 houses and businesses. Inside a shed is a jury-rigged switchboard. When the city's free power supply goes off, electrician Ali Khalil, 18, turns on the generator and flicks dozens of switches to give customers power for $1.90 per ampere. Although Saleem owns his generator, many other power brokers are using ones looted from government ministries.

Because of what U.S. occupation authorities and Iraqi officials say are severe problems with sabotage, maintenance, looting and smuggling, Iraq remains without reliable supplies of electricity and gasoline. The government is just beginning to function. Put such conditions together with rampant unemployment, and the result is a flourishing black market for power, fuel and much more.

In the market stalls of Baghdad Jadida, or New Baghdad, young men tempt passersby with towers of new Iraqi passports, driver's licenses, government-car license plates, merchant permits and other official documents looted from government offices.

One trader, Saad Mohammed, 21, offers two old passports, either stolen or taken from their owners. He has government license plates for $1.50. He says he found his wares.

"People make a living by forgery, by stealing, by any way they can," said one 21-year-old trader, a former soldier who gave his name only as Sermed.

Occasionally, Iraqi police or U.S. soldiers arrest black-market document sellers. Mohammed said he was recently hauled in but won his freedom with a $400 bribe.

Men like Walid, 39, the gasoline seller, and Saad Bashi, 45, a father of 10 who trades looted car parts, say they would like nothing better than to find steady work. But with Iraq's economy in crisis, they say they do what they can to survive.

"All the people are jobless and everyone wants a job. I used to be a traffic policeman," Bashi said.

Ali Abdullah, 31, a gasoline black marketeer, gets his supplies from stations on the edge of Baghdad in the hottest part of the afternoon, when lines are shortest. He cruises from one to another with his canisters, convincing the operators to break the rules against filling anything but vehicle tanks.

"I pretend my car's broken down. Of course they know what's going on, but I have to pretend so they won't be embarrassed in front of the people," Abdullah said.

Sometimes, when no one is around, he convinces them to fill up a 200-liter barrel. He makes $43 a month, enough, he says, for him to support his family, including two brothers injured in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

The gasoline black marketeers are cursed for their high prices.

"Sometimes people call me bad names, insulting me and shouting at me," Abdullah said. "So I tell them my problem is I can't get any job so I'm doing this job. It's better I do this than go out and steal."

Walid suffers similar insults from people at his mosque. A highly religious man, he feels guilty, though not enough to stop.

"They tell me I'm profiteering from the crisis," he said ruefully. He hates selling gasoline but earns $335 a month, much more than at his old job.

The U.S.-led occupation administration is struggling to deal with the gasoline shortage. Officials say they recently caught two ships, 20 barges and 79 tanker trucks smuggling oil products out of Iraq. In one 48-hour period last week, about 9.8 million gallons were imported to help meet demand, estimated at 4 million gallons daily.

The acute shortages of fuel and electricity were blamed for triggering riots last weekend in Basra, where residents suffered without power for four days and endured 24-hour waits for fuel.

Adel Shindah, 36, a lecturer at an Islamic college, was furious after paying five times the official price to fill his car with black-market gasoline. Echoing many other Iraqis, he said he was convinced the coalition could solve the crisis if it really tried. "Even a mayor of a small city could organize this," he complained.

Though at times it is hard to distinguish bluster from rage, some people say that unless the problems are resolved soon, the situation could turn uglier.

"The Americans know the Iraqis will not tolerate this more than two or three months," warned Mohammed Jaff, a 28-year-old building contractor who spends $500 a month so his office can have electricity. "I could very easily take my machine gun and kill two or three Americans each day. But not yet."

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