U.S. military death toll for 2005 nears last year’s level; fuel crisis hits Iraq
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Two more U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq as the year wound down Friday, putting the American military death toll at 841 so far – just five short of 2004’s lost lives despite political progress and dogged efforts to quash the insurgency.In Baghdad, hundreds of cars lined up at gas stations as word spread that Iraq’s largest oil refinery shut down two weeks ago because of threats of insurgent attacks. Nearly three years after the U.S.-led invasion, a fuel crisis again threatens to cripple a country with the world’s third-largest proven oil reserves.Violence went on unabated Friday, with at least 17 people killed in shootings, mortar attacks and a suicide car bombing in Baghdad. In the most serious incident, police said nine people were killed in a drive-by shooting – apparently because they were drinking alcohol in public. Two Iraqi Army captains were also gunned down in the town of Dujail, north of Baghdad, as they drove home.A senior Sudanese diplomat said his country closed its embassy in Baghdad in an effort to win the release of six kidnapped employees – including one diplomat.”A statement was issued by the Sudanese government to close the embassy in Iraq to win the release of our kidnapped citizens,” Charge d’affairs Mohamed Ahmed Khalil told The Associated Press. He added that the embassy’s 12 employees would leave Monday.Al-Qaida in Iraq had threatened Thursday to kill five Sudanese on Saturday unless the country removed its diplomatic mission from Iraq.The Sudanese Foreign Ministry reported on Dec. 24 that six of its embassy employees were kidnapped – including the mission’s second secretary, Abdel Moneam Mohammad Tom. It was not clear if the al-Qaida statement was referring to the same group.The two new deaths of U.S. military personnel were announced Friday by the American military. A bomb killed one soldier when it struck his vehicle in Baghdad on Friday, while the second soldier was shot and killed in the western city of Fallujah.Their deaths brought the number of U.S. military members killed so far in 2005 to 841, of whom 64 died in December. A total of 846 troops died in 2004 and 485 in 2003. The worst month in 2005 was January with 106 fatalities, followed by November with 96 and August with 85.The United States hopes that as more Iraqi police and army forces are trained, they will slowly take over responsibility for security from American troops. Much of that expectation hinges on the ability of Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian groups to form a broad-based government that will have the legitimacy to deflate the Sunni Arab-led insurgency.In Beiji, some 155 miles north of Baghdad and near Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, the deteriorating security situation led authorities to shut down Iraq’s largest oil refinery Dec. 18, former oil minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum told the AP.Al-Uloum said the facility “is considered one of the vital refineries in Iraq” and produces about 2 million gallons of gas a day.As word of the shutdown spread through the country, abut 1,000 vehicles waited at one of Baghdad’s biggest gas stations, known as the Jindi al-Majhoul, or Unknown Soldier station.Ahmed Khalaf, 33, said he left his home at dawn and was still in line at noon. He expected to wait a few more hours before getting fuel.”After the rise in gas prices, now we have a gas shortage,” he said. “I left my work early, and I don’t think I will have the opportunity to return to work today because of this long line. Dark will come soon and I cannot work at night.”Ali Moussa, a 51-year-old tanker truck driver, said he and his colleagues were working in a dangerous situation.”We demand that the government provide security and protection,” he said. “The Beiji storage tanks are full and there isn’t any shortage of gas there. The problem is that drivers are too afraid to go there unless they are protected.”Baghdad in particular has been suffering from a shortage of refined fuel, much of which is already imported because of the country’s diminished refining capacity. A number of demonstrations have already been held around Iraq because of a Dec. 19 increase in gas prices.At the time, the price of imported and super gasoline was raised from about 13 cents a gallon to about 65 cents a gallon.The oil crisis has already cost one job, that of al-Uloum, the oil minister, who was given a 30-day vacation last Wednesday and replaced with Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi. Al-Uloum had opposed a recent decision to raise prices by nine times.Iraq’s proven oil reserves, estimated at about 110 billion barrels, are the world’s third largest after Saudi Arabia and Canada. Analysts have predicted that Iraq’s oil production will average about 1.8 million barrels per day this year, about 10 percent less than 2004 levels of about 2 million barrels – and just over half the 1990 level. One reason is frequent insurgent attacks on pipelines and refineries.—Associated Press reporter Sinan Salahheddin and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.