BAGHDAD, Iraq - Long lines formed at gas stations in Baghdad on Friday as word spread that Iraq's largest oil refinery had shut down in the face of threats against truck drivers, and fears grew of a gas shortage.
An international team, meanwhile, agreed on Thursday to assess Iraq's parliamentary elections, a decision lauded by Sunni Arab and secular Shiite groups who have staged repeated protests around Iraq complaining of widespread fraud and intimidation.
The Shiite religious bloc leading after the Dec. 15 poll also welcomed the decision and said it would help end any doubts about the elections.
"We welcome the coming of this team to end doubts about the election results. The number of votes our ticket has got are real and the coming team will give credibility to this number," said Ali al-Adib, a leading member of the conservative Dawa party that is a main member of the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance.
Iraq's largest oil refinery, in Beiji, was shut down on Dec. 18 because of the deteriorating security situation in the region, Minister of Oil Ibrahim Bahar el-Ulom told The Associated Press on Friday. He 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, several hundred cars waited at one of Baghdad's biggest gas station.
"After the rise in gas prices, now we have a gas shortage," said Ahmed Khalaf, 33. "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."
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."
The decision announced Thursday by the International Mission for Iraqi Elections to send a team of assessors should help address opposition complaints of ballot box rigging and mollify those groups who felt their views were not being heard, especially among hardline Sunni Arab parties.
"It is important that the Iraqi people have confidence in the election results and that the voting process, including the process for vote counting, is free and fair," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said.
The U.N. team was coming despite a U.N. observer's endorsement of the vote, which gave the Shiite religious bloc a big lead in preliminary returns. The observer, Craig Jenness, said Wednesday that his team - which helped the Iraqi election commission organize and oversee the poll - found the elections to be credible.
Sunni Arabs and secular Shiites rejected Jenness' findings, saying their concerns - which included political assassinations before the elections - were not addressed.
There have been about 1,500 complaints lodged against the elections, including about 50 serious enough to alter the results in some districts. The overall result, however, was not expected to change.
On Thursday, the United Nations said it had encouraged Iraq's electoral commission to get more outside observers involved, and Secretary-General Kofi Annan welcomed the participation of the International Mission for Iraqi Elections, his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
The Iraqi Accordance Front, which is the country's leading Sunni Arab group, applauded the decision, as did the secular Iraqi National List headed by former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite.
It was unclear if the review would further delay the release of final results, now expected in early January.
An elections crisis could set back hopes for a broad-based government that would include minority Sunni Arabs as well as secular Shiites. Such a government could have the legitimacy necessary to diminish the insurgency - a key part of any U.S. military exit strategy from Iraq.
The presence of two Arab experts on the International Mission for Iraqi Elections team could go far in helping to convince Iraqis that the review of the vote will be fair. The team will also consist of a Canadian and a European.
Preliminary results from the vote have given the governing United Iraqi Alliance a big lead - but one that would require forming a coalition with other groups.
The closure of the Beiji refinery will impact Iraq and Baghdad in particular, which 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.
South Korea's parliament on Friday approved a government plan to bring home one-third of the country's troops in Iraq but extended the overall deployment for another year. Poland agreed to a similar extension on Thursday.
South Korea's plan calls for the withdrawal of about 1,000 of the 3,200 military personnel who are helping rebuild a Kurdish area of northern Iraq.
South Korea has more troops in Iraq than any coalition partner except Britain.