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BAGHDAD - As Iraq's brutal summer heat sends temperatures soaring above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), a dire shortage of petroleum products is damaging the economy and cutting electricity supplies in Baghdad to new lows.

The shortage is due to a host of reasons, including rivalries among political parties in the south, but an interior ministry spokesman said the security situation was a major cause.

"In addition to attacks on pipelines, trucks carrying petroleum products are in the sights of the rebels. Some gas stations had to close after their drivers refused to go pick up gasoline and other products stored in the dangerous areas around Baghdad," said Assem Jihad.

The capital has some 160 gas stations, of which half are privately run, and long lines of motorists stretch in front of those still selling gasoline.

"The daily consumption of gasoline reaches 20 million liters (five million gallons) for the country, of which six to seven million is for Baghdad," where six million people live, said Jihad. "And supply is well below demand."

Sabotage of the oil infrastructure is also ongoing, aggravating the situation, he added, nothing there had been two attacks in the past week on pipelines to the north and south of the capital.

"Two units of the Baiji refinery were closed last week and this cut production," said Jihad, who also reported a fire in the offshore terminal of Khor al-Amaya in the Gulf.

"Certain countries have stopped providing Iraq with petroleum products," he said, without elaborating, after the government halved the six billion dollars allocated to pay for imports.

An oil ministry official, however, singled out the actions of "an internal party that is trying to hinder the improvement of the supply situation".

The official, who asked to remain anonymous, was alluding to the Shiite party Fadhila, which holds 15 seats in parliament and forms part of the dominant Shiite United Iraqi Alliance.

But it angrily walked out of talks on forming a new government after it failed to secure the oil ministry.

The party reportedly is interfering with oil supplies heading north to Baghdad, while threatening a strike action, and demanding a cut of export royalties.

Fadhila is powerful in the southern port city of Basra which dominates the drilling and export of the vast majority of Iraq's oil resources.

The party has publicly denied putting pressure of the oil ministry, which is now headed by Shiite independent Hussein Shahristani, despite reports from the southern oil-rich provinces to the contrary.

Electricity production has been affected as well by the oil shortages.

Since the US-led invasion of March 2003, Baghdad residents have always suffered from a lack of electricity, with some neighborhoods receiving power only one hour out of five.

As a result, gasoline-consuming generators are a common sight throughout the city, sometimes powering whole blocks. With soaring temperatures sending residents scurrying to air conditioners, power consumption has risen steeply.

Many of those waiting in the long gas lines carry jerry cans for their generators rather than their cars.

The shortage is only exacerbating the hardships of the Iraqi capital's residents and increasing their criticism of the government which was only sworn in a week earlier.

05/28/2006 10:51 GMT

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