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Monday, May 5

Soldiers join black-market fuel duty, humanitarian mission

By Rob Curtis | Military Times

MOSUL, Iraq - Army Sgt. Daniel Wiser peered from a UH-60 Black Hawk at the chaos below: people fleeing a parked gasoline tanker and others seeking cover in a nearby maze of streets.

Wiser and other soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) had arrived to break up a black-market refueling point.

Here in Iraq, sitting atop one of the world's largest petroleum reserves, the aftermath of war means that for many, the only source of gasoline and propane is the black market. And the very U.S. soldiers sent to break up the black market soon would find that they, too, had to turn to the illegal traffickers for fuel.

As Wiser's bird touched down, soldiers fanned out to break up the war profiteers.

"Before I came here, I thought black market was a little back-alley thing,'' said Wiser, 25, of Waukesha, Wis. "When I got here, I found it right out in the open.''

One of the main efforts of support operations here is to rein in black-market trade in gasoline and propane. People depend on gasoline to get to work, to take their children to school and to shop. Propane is the only source of cooking and heating fuel.

"These people haven't had hot food for 35 days,'' Maj. Brian Pearl said. "The propane will help bring their lives back to normal.''

Iraqis pay black marketeers four times the official rate for gasoline sold from tanker trucks, smaller 200-gallon tanks wheeled on rickshaws, and other cars that have managed to buy fuel at the cheaper, state-run stations where gasoline is sold for pennies a gallon.

"It's a vicious circle,'' Pearl said. Workers must pay for fuel to get to jobs where they may make just $1 a day. Their paychecks go to food, cooking fuel and gasoline. Yet waiting in lines hundreds of cars long to get gasoline at one of the few functional state-run, and cheap, stations makes it nearly impossible to get to work.

The Army isn't concerned with individuals selling a few gallons of siphoned gas from their own gas tanks. They are after the big fish.

"What we're finding is that a lot of these folks, through years of doing business this way, are taking fuel from the government and losing money during the day selling it at the government price,'' Pearl said. "But they make their money through the black market at night.''

Tankers often get 9,500 gallons of gas from a state bulk-fuel site and deliver it to the legal gas station indicated on their paperwork. But after putting 7,000 gallons in the ground at the station, drivers leave with 2,500 gallons to sell illegally at a price of their choosing.

Army efforts to break up the black market take many forms.

Humvee gun trucks escort fuel tankers from a bulk storage facility to state-run gasoline and propane stations. The battalion protects and distributes roughly 25,000 gallons of gasoline a day.

The gas is sold at market prices fixed by the Iraqi ministry of fuel and sold only seven gallons at a time to automobiles. Propane is distributed similarly.

Security teams are sent to stations to protect fuel from looters, maintain order and keep an eye on prices. Something as simple as someone cutting into lines, often made up of hundreds of cars and people, can spark a brawl.

U.S. troops found this out first hand last week when a man who cut into a propane line attacked Sgt. Robert Cates and another soldier.

As the two soldiers pulled the man from line, the crowd sealed them in. Cates turned to step over some propane cylinders and make a lane through the people.

"By the time I turned back around,'' Cates said, the Iraqi was preparing to use his empty propane tank as a weapon. He "had the tank over his head on the way down. ... It wasn't the little kind of tank you hook up to your Coleman. It was much larger.''

Cates instinctively raised his rifle to protect himself. He shot the man dead.

Hospitals in Mosul provide gasoline for their ambulance fleet, their doctors and staff as part of their wages. If these people were to wait in lines for fuel, they'd never get to work. And the hospital would shut down.

Doctors and staff at Razzi Hospital haven't been paid, and the gasoline tanks are running low. Lt. Col. Chris Holden reacted by starting what his battalion calls ``Operation Robin Hood.''

"In the beginning, we had these black-market fuelers around,'' Holden said. "We just chased them away.''

But Holden realized that the hospital's fuel shortage could be alleviated with assistance from the black marketers.

"Now we're looking for them,'' he said. "We can secure the black-market fuel and give the guy the choice: charity or jail.''