Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- While officials privately debate whether communitarian violence in Iraq constitutes a low-grade civil war, there is no disagreement about the oil crisis there, which has little to do with the insurgency. Gasoline and home heating fuel are scarce and expensive, thanks to runaway corruption. This problem's difficulty and importance will test the new Iraqi government once it is organized.

 Industry sources privately cite corruption as the reason for recent decisions by Turkey and Saudi Arabia to halt gasoline exports to Iraq for non-payment of bills. That exacerbates a worsening situation where Iraq, one of the world's great petroleum producers, has to truck in gasoline from Kuwait.

 While the formal line in Washington and Baghdad blames insurgents for the oil crisis, U.S. officials who are close to the situation gave me a totally different explanation. They blame corruption at every level, from the oil ministry on down, that is common to Iraq. It cannot be controlled by the Americans but is the responsibility of the long-delayed Iraqi government. Thus, oil is a microcosm of the overall conundrum in Iraq, where there are no good options for the Bush administration in dealing with a culture where honesty and efficiency historically have been rare.

 The exhilaration in the Bush administration that the Anglo-American attack in 2003 had preserved the oil producing capacity is as illusory as claims of victory three years ago. The fuel shortages in oil-rich Iraq are profound and growing worse, with endless lines at gasoline stations. That drives up prices to the equivalent of $15 for a cylinder of home fuel -- too expensive for the average Iraqi.

 The best explanation for this was given me by a non-political U.S. civil servant, an "Arabist" with vast experience in the region. He has been ordered definitively to say nothing and write nothing about oil in Iraq or anything else to do with the country. He spoke to me only if I would not identify him, by name or organization.

 My source blamed corruption on an unimaginable level. "There is no system for turning on the oil in Iraq," he told me. "Everyone there is taking their cut. Everybody takes a little." It is corruption from top to bottom. At a time of an acute shortage in Iraq, oil is being surreptitiously sent across the border for gain.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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