BAGHDAD -- Violent demonstrations broke out across Iraq and the oil minister threatened to resign yesterday after the government raised the prices of gasoline and cooking fuel by up to nine times.
The Cabinet raised the prices of gasoline, diesel, kerosene, and cooking gas on Sunday to curb a growing black market, Oil Ministry spokesman Assem Jihad said.
The price of a liter of imported and super gasoline was raised to 17 cents, which is a fivefold increase from previous prices. There are about 3.8 liters in a gallon, meaning the new price is about 65 cents a gallon.
The price of locally produced gasoline was raised about sevenfold to about 12 cents per liter, or about 46 cents a gallon.
In Amarah, 180 miles southeast of Baghdad, police fired into the air to disperse hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the provincial government headquarters.
The demonstrators, however, did not leave, and some scuffled with police. Protesters also briefly blocked the main road between Amarah, Basra, and Baghdad.
Drivers blocked roads and burned tires near fuel stations in the southern city of Basra, and hundreds of Iraqis demonstrated outside the governor's headquarters to protest the price increases.
In Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, about 500 people demonstrated against the price increases, giving a letter of protest to the city council to hand over to Cabinet ministers.
Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum said that when the Cabinet increased prices, it also decided that the extra money would be used to establish a fund for more than 2 million low-income families to help them pay for the fuel.
Some aid money was supposed to reach the families before the price increases, but that did not happen, he said.
''Dr. Ibrahim will submit his resignation to the Iraqi government if the situation continues as is," he said, referring to himself. ''We should take in consideration the living conditions and the economic situation of the citizens."
The current government has continued Saddam Hussein's policy of heavily subsidizing fuel prices. The subsidies, which artificially produced some of the lowest gasoline and heating fuel prices in the world, have been singled out by financial institutions as a crippling burden when the country is trying to create a free-market economy. Iraq's oil minister previously said cheap domestic fuel prices had encouraged smuggling to other countries. Earlier this year, the Iraqi Cabinet had rejected a proposal by Finance Minister Ali Abdulameer Allawi to raise fuel prices tenfold.
The governor of Basra said he called an emergency provincial council meeting, during which members decided not to honor the price increases.
Jihad said the price of low-grade diesel was raised nine-fold to about 10 cents a liter, or about 38 cents a gallon. Kerosene prices were raised fivefold and cooking gas threefold.