BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraq sits atop a sea of oil, but its citizens now wait in lines that stretch for miles to buy a tank of gasoline.
At 4 cents a gallon, the cost of a fill-up remains a bargain, but that's small compensation for having to wait up to 10 hours in line.
"After the first Gulf War, our country was destroyed, but at least (Iraqi President Saddam Hussein) had everything back to normal in two weeks," said Sami Shaker, 51, a high school math teacher who makes ends meet by driving a taxi. He had been in line for five hours and still was about 100 cars away from the pump.
Shaker's claims about the previous regime may be exaggerated, but that does not diminish the growing contempt that ordinary Iraqis are beginning to feel toward their new American masters, who are struggling to restore some semblance of normality to everyday life in this beleaguered land.
"You Americans came in with a lot of promises, but you have delivered nothing," complained Ghalib Al-Beiruti, 54, a portly grocer behind the wheel of an ancient Chevrolet Caprice that looked as though it was held together with baling wire and duct tape.
Only a month has passed since Saddam's regime crumbled. And while the U.S. transition team headed by retired Gen. Jay Garner clearly has gotten off to a rocky start - Garner and some of his senior aides already are scheduled for replacement - most U.S. officials in Baghdad seem convinced that they are improving Iraqi citizens' lives.
It's hard to find an Iraqi who would agree.
In Baghdad, the biggest gripes are about electricity, which still is patchy across large swaths of the city, and water, which is available to only 60 percent of the capital's households - despite U.S. assurances that both problems would be fixed by now.
The biggest fear is crime. While U.S. officials cite progress in returning police to work and restarting the criminal courts, ordinary citizens say looters and robbers have become more brazen by the day. Gun battles are a nightly occurrence in almost every neighborhood.
But it is the crippling shortage of gasoline in a country with proven oil reserves in excess of 112 billion barrels that most baffles and frustrates Iraqis. This week, history of sorts will be made when Iraq begins importing gasoline from neighboring Jordan, Kuwait and Turkey.
The first tankers were expected Sunday. U.S. officials hope that 100 to 200 trucks a day within a week will ease the crisis.
"One of the things we're working on is bartering fuel oil for gasoline. We would also be happy to take donations," said Gary Vogler, a U.S. oil executive who is advising the Iraqi Ministry of Oil.
The reason for the gas lines is that Iraqi gas stations are receiving only 40 percent of their prewar supply.
The production infrastructure survived the war with little damage, and Iraq has the capacity to refine enough gasoline to meet domestic needs, according to U.S. experts. The problem, caused by U.N. sanctions, is a bottleneck in the normal production and distribution system that prevents Iraq from exporting fuel oil.
Iraq's current production levels are low, about 180,000 barrels a day. But interim Oil Minister Thamir Ghadban said Sunday that production could reach 1million barrels per day by the end of June.
"I am confident we will be reaching our prewar level (3 million barrels per day) by the end of the year," he said.
But optimistic forecasts have done little to soothe tempers of frustrated motorists as the gasoline lines continue to lengthen.
At one gas station in the center of Baghdad, seven separate lines spread like mile-long tentacles of a giant octopus. As the temperature climbed into the 90s, drivers pushed their vehicles along. Tempers shortened and altercations were frequent.
At the state-owned Al-Gailani gas station, not far from where U.S. troops guard the Ministry of Oil, manager Haidar Jafar Ahmed said only five of his 13 pumps were working and that breakdowns were frequent.
When the electricity goes off - which is often - no gas gets pumped. Ahmed said he used to have an emergency generator to cover such contingencies, but looters took it last week.
Gas stations in Baghdad open at 7 a.m., and the lines usually begin to form at about 9 p.m. the previous night.
For those too impatient to wait, gasoline of suspect quality can be purchased out of barrel or jerrycan from entrepreneurs who seem to have sprung up across the city, but especially near the gas lines. They generally charge ten times the pump price.
Shaker, the math teacher and cabdriver, says he has to spend one day in the gas line in order to work the next.
"This is a country where gasoline is cheaper than water, but it's not our country anymore," he said. "Now we are seeing what happens when foreigners are controlling us."
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