Marines, soldiers battle fuel shortages for Iraqis

17 Jul 2003 | Army Sgt. Mike Sweet

Long lines of cars and trucks that wrap around An Najaf, Iraq city blocks, frustrated motorists overwhelm local police, so U.S. troops are needed to keep the peace instead of fight terrorism.

A platoon of soldiers from the 870th Military Police Company, an Army National Guard unit based in Pittsburgh, Calif., has drawn the unenviable task of keeping the peace at fuel points around this province of nearly 1 million people.

Early one morning, two lanes of cars and trucks meandered around the block from the entrance to one of the four gas stations in town. Two armored Humvees mounted with machine guns from the 1st Platoon, 870th Military Police Co. rolled up to check on how things were going today.

"It used to be a lot worse," said Army Sgt. Alfredo F. Gonzales, a military police officer and resident of Oakley Calf. "When we first got here, they had all the lanes blocked and people were trying to get in through the exits."

Spotty fuel deliveries and problems with generators that run the fuel pumps at the gas stations are the chief means to longer gas lines.

This problem is fairly new to Najaf.  Shortly after major combat operations ended in Iraq, coalition forces contracted with engineering and construction firm Kellogg, Brown & Root, to deliver fuel into the provinces of Iraq.

"They were delivering 20 to 25 trucks to Najaf about every three days," said Army Staff Sgt. Robert Dumont, a fuel and energy specialist with the 342nd Civil Affairs Battalion, a Reserve unit based in Green Bay, Wis., that is working with the 1st Marine Division in Najaf. "Now we are only getting maybe two trucks a day."    

Oil ministry officials in Baghdad tell the Marines that Najaf should have plenty of fuel, but the long lines and flaring tempers tell another story.

Pressures on the fuel system stems partially from the extra demand that Muslim pilgrims bring when visiting this holy Shiite city, according Marine Maj. Mark P. DeVito, a fuel analyst with the 3rd Civil Affairs Group, a Reserve unit based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and assigned to the First Marine Division in Iraq.

"The buses and trucks add a lot to the problem," said DeVito, a San Diego resident.  "We have a lot of tourists who are coming here from out of town."

Another problem is that each of the provinces around Najaf has some control in where the fuel goes, said DeVito, but Najaf is basically on its own.

"Hillah has the trucks," said DeVito, explaining that the fuel trucks that distribute the fuel in the region are based outside of Najaf.  "And Diwaniya has the storage facilities.  Najaf really does not have any say on where the fuel goes."

He explains that the other provinces make sure they have fuel before they distribute it to the others.

To counter this problem, the Marines from the battalion have found some creative, if temporary, solutions. 

One of the ways they have tried to relieve the fuel crisis is by contracting with private companies to pick up benzene and diesel from fuel depots and provide armed escorts to safeguard the convoys back to Najaf, according to Marine Maj. Kyle B. Ellison, the operations officer for 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, based out of 29 Palms, Calif.

"Getting the fuel is not really our job," Ellison said.  "It should be the Iraqi system that supplies fuel to Najaf."

Marines target black market fuel operators who tap into pipelines outside the city and try to sell gas from the backs of donkey carts and pickup trucks.

"We aggressively go after them," Ellison said. "All the fuel we recover goes right back into the system."

Even with creative supply programs, the division's battle staff finds itself sending Marines and soldiers to protect fuel coming into Najaf and keeping peace instead of focusing all their energy on the region's security.

In the meantime, the military police spend their day keeping the gas lines moving and cooling down the tempers of impatient customers.

Sometimes due to the intense desert heat or empty gas tanks, to the amazement of the customers, the MPs will help customers push their cars up to the fueling points. 

With the line moving smoothly, the MPs leave the station in the hands of the local police and head out to another fuel crisis.  They have received reports of hundreds of Iraqis overwhelming a propane distribution terminal on the outskirts of town. The police need some assistance to bring some order to the crowd clamoring for cooking fuel.

This also means the six-person squad will have their hands full. 

Propane tanks, like the ones used in many outdoor grills in the United States, are the main source of cooking fuel in Iraq. 

According to DuMont, Najaf is currently only getting about 25 percent of the propane it needs.

Their lieutenant joins the team of military police as they pull up to the propane terminal.  Hundreds of men, woman and children carrying beat-up cylinders for propane fill the compound.

A few cars are scattered throughout the dirt parking lot, but most people here either walked or used donkey-drawn carts to get them here. 

The terminal manager complains that the crowds are keeping him from dispensing out the propane and asked to Americans to help.

The soldiers, using Humvees to open up a path in the crowd, were able to make two orderly lines at the entrance of the propane terminal. The men were lined up on one side of the entrance and the women started another one for themselves.

Keeping the people in line required the military police officers to constantly patrol the lines.

One elderly lady with a tracheotomy was standing in the middle of the compound crying and holding her two heavy metal propane cylinders.  It was early afternoon now and she had been at the distribution terminal since before 6 a.m.

Frail from age and the intense desert sun she stood there begging for help.  One of the MPs recognized her from when he helped form the women's line and, through an interpreter, asked her what was wrong.

Making the group of women move back, Army Staff Sgt. Matthew J. Passino, whose civilian job is a purchasing and warehousing agent for a San Francisco company scolded the group.

"If she gets pushed out of line again," warns Passino.  "You all will go to the end of the line."

As the midday sun beat down on the long line of propane customers, murmurs in the crowds spoke of dissatisfaction.  

Others just pleaded with the soldiers saying that they did not want much, just to have fuel to cook their food with.

"For the most part they just want to fuel their cars and trucks which allows them to deliver rice or drive their busses," said Ellison.  "This affects their livelihood and economy."