By Patrick Fort – BAGHDAD
A chronic fuel shortage in Baghdad, capital of one of the world’s most oil rich countries, has created a black market for petrol which sustains a growing population of dirty-faced street kids.
Along the pavements of the Saadun Avenue, cutting through the centre of the Iraqi capital, dozens of children siphon petrol into cars from five gallon drums, using funnels made of soda bottles and lengths of garden hose.
On the other side of the street, a once prosperous thoroughfare now marred by razor-wire, concrete barricades and shuttered shops, motorists queue for up to five hours to buy subsidised petrol at official rates.
Those who have the cash, but no time to wait, can ask kids like 13-year-old Mohammed Riyad to fill their tanks on the spot for 15,000 dinars (10 dollars) for five gallons (20 litres), more than twice the official price.
Prices may be cheap by western standards, but Iraq boasts the world’s second largest confirmed oil reserves and its population expects access to fuel.
Violence and underinvestment have damaged the pipeline and refinery network, leaving the country partly reliant on imported refined products, and smugglers exploit state subsidies to re-export cheap fuel to Iraq’s richer neighbours.
Oil minister Hussein Shahristani says Iraq produces 10 million litres of petrol and imports seven million litres per day, whereas the market sucks up 22 million and distribution is hit by "terrorism and administrative corruption."
This is a view shared by many Baghdad motorists such as taxi driver Hussein Shefik, who says he cannot afford black market rates and instead passes much of his time in long queues exposed to possible bomb attacks.
"We’re here because there are more thieves than citizens in Iraq. It’s the land of Ali Baba. In Egypt, petrol is half as expensive as it is in Iraq," he declared, with only slight exaggeration.
The average price for a litre of petrol at an Iraqi service station is 50 US cents. In Egypt it costs around 22 US cents per litre.
The government has vowed to tackle the problem and root out corrupt officials within its own ranks, but in the meantime the shortage has created a minor economic boom for Baghdadi children as young as six.
The smallest fuel traders struggle to manoeuvre the large plastic fuel drums that mark each team’s pitch along Saadun Street. Mohammed has the help of his 16-year-old brother and the blessing of his father, who let him quit school.
At night, the older brother gets himself to the head of a petrol queue in order to get the first subsidised deliveries in the morning. The stocks are then hidden just back from the street, and Mohammed touts for trade.
Business is good, but not without its risks.
"Once, three guys in a Mercedes asked for 40 litres. I emptied my first drum, and when I said I was going to fetch another, they pushed me over and took off," he said part way trough his 13-hour roadside shift.
Nearby, it is the same story for 16-year-old Ali Kassem and his older brother, who also does the nightshift queue. Like Mohammed, Ali has given up his studies and now spends up to 15 hours a day serving nervous drivers.
"That’s how it is," he sighs, squinting against the hot, dusty wind coming down the street. "I’ve got no choice, we’ve got to do this to survive."
There are no official figures on how many young Iraqis are selling petrol for cash, but UNICEF estimates that only around 60 percent of Iraqi children attend school.
Many of those who have dropped out since the outbreak of the US-led war in 2003 take low-paying jobs in order to earn money for their families.