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Soaring gasoline prices have left motorists perplexed and looking for villains. Is it a Big Oil conspiracy, or just basic supply and demand? Perhaps it's only a gamble that went awry.

Since February, gasoline prices have jumped 20 cents a gallon, reaching $1.32 a gallon on average nationwide, the highest prices since the Persian Gulf War five years ago. The Justice Department is investigating.But who's to blame?

While many factors are involved - from the severe winter to higher highway speed limits - energy industry experts say the root causes for the price spiral were decisions by oil companies nearly a year ago to draw down inventories and keep them low, expecting a drop in crude prices that never materialized.

The payoff was simple: Oil companies would have avoided hundreds of millions of dollars in storage costs.

And, according to industry analysts, they also were gambling that by postponing oil purchases they would be able to buy cheaper oil later in the year. The industry expected new oil supplies from increased production in the North Sea and elsewhere - plus new supplies from Iraq - by the end of 1995.

Iraq has been under U.N. sanctions banning oil sales since 1990, when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein ordered his troops into Kuwait. It has been trying to get U.N. permission to make a limited oil-for-food sale. Such a sale could have dumped an additional 700,000 barrels a day on the world market and by some estimates pulled down crude oil prices as much as $3 a barrel. So, inventories could be replenished at lower cost.

But the Iraqi deal has yet to be worked out. North Sea production was delayed. A hurricane disrupted supplies from Mexico. And crude prices didn't fall. Suddenly, inventories were at 19-year lows as winter came - an 86-day supply.

By late last year, inventories of crude oil were being drawn down at the rate of 1.4 million barrels a day worldwide, and by the end of December worldwide stocks stood at 893 million barrels, about 100 million barrels below normal. Gasoline stocks also were 10 million or 15 million barrels below normal at year's end.

Meanwhile, the oil companies miscalculated soaring demand.

There was the unusually harsh and long winter that boosted the need for heating oil. And there's been a shift toward more gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks, and people driving faster because of higher speed limits, that has added to gasoline consumption.

With tight inventories, oil companies did not have the cushion they might have had years ago, according to industry analysts.

"They set us up with their own decisions," says Edwin Rothschild, who specializes in oil issues for the consumer advocacy group Citizen Action. "They can't say Saddam did it or the weather did it. They have to take some responsibility for the low stocks of crude."

With supplies tight and demand increasing, crude prices began to soar from $17.50 a barrel in December to $25 a barrel by mid-April. The increase was passed on at the pump.

Oil industry executives are adamant in denying any improper collusion or cooperation.

"There's absolutely no indication that this is anything but basic economics . . . anything other than the normal markets," said Edward Murphy, director of finance and statistics at the American Petroleum Institute, the industry trade group.

The increases in gasoline prices mirrored the spike in crude oil prices from December to April, he said.