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Influx of Iraqi Refugees Sparks Gas Shortage in Oil-Rich Kurdistan

Image: At least 200 cars wait in line for gas at a petrol station in Erbil

At least 200 cars wait in line for gas at a petrol station in Erbil. Gas is suddenly in short supply in this oil-rich region, due to a huge influx of cars as Iraqis fleeing fighting in Mosul and other parts of Iraq to come to the still-safe Kurdish region. Cale Salih / for NBC News

ERBIL, Iraq — The restless drivers wait for hours, chain smoking and fiddling with their radios. Some take shelter from the scorching heat under nearby trees, turning off their engines and leaving their cars empty in the endless lines of vehicles snaking through the city’s streets.

Gas is suddenly in short supply in Kurdistan, partly due to a huge influx of cars filled with Iraqis fleeing fighting in Mosul and other parts of Iraq to come to this relatively peaceful and autonomous region. An assault on Iraq's largest oil refinery hasn't helped matters.

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The gas shortage is an ironic turn of events for one of the world's most oil-rich countries, a reality not lost on the Iraqis waiting for hours to fill up their tanks.

Ikram and her husband, Murad, spent most of their morning sitting in their beat up SUV waiting for gas at an Erbil gas station. They came from Tikrit – the birthplace of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein and one of the cities overrun last week by Sunni extremist militants.

Image: Ikram and her husband Murad sit in a long line of cars waiting to fill their car with gas
Ikram and her husband Murad sit in a long line of cars waiting to fill their car with gas before they make the trip to drop off their four sons in Kirkuk, and then return to their hometown of Tikrit themselves. Cale Salih / for NBC News

Ikram, a retired mother of four who would only give her first name to NBC News, said she had made the two-hour drive to Erbil for an appointment and had no choice but to go back to her city, currently controlled by the fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

"Where are we supposed to go ?" she said. "Erbil is too expensive and we cannot stay."

After hours waiting in the long lines of cars, talk turned to the deep sectarian undertones of the current conflict.

Ikram said she and her husband planned to leave their children with her sister in Kirkuk, a city where Kurdish security forces routed the militants’ advance.

"I will have to go back to Tikrit with my husband, because that is where my home is, that is where my garden is," she said.

"ISIS is in Tikrit but they didn’t hurt us," her husband added.

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The militants – intent on creating an Islamic caliphate straddling the border of Iraq and Syria – captured Mosul and Tikrit last week, dealing a humiliating blow to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government.

Maliki has drawn withering criticism for what are widely perceived to be sectarian and heavy-handed policies, which have alienated and angered Iraq’s Sunni population.

Casting itself as a champion of the Sunni cause, ISIS has drawn on this resentment and recruited fighters from the ranks of disenfranchised Sunnis.

Ikram, a Sunni, said she felt marginalized and targeted by Iraqi security forces, who would randomly arrest and detain young men in her community.

"We would sleep but we were not safe," she said.

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Wafaa, a Shiite friend of Ikram and her husband, who was waiting with the couple in their baking car, agreed.

"I am a Shiite.. But I do not accept how the Sunnis have been treated," he said. "They don’t give Sunnis jobs in the police or army or government. This is unfair discrimination and we have to stop it."