KIRKUK â€” Northern Iraq’s oilfields are a prime target for rebels looking to disrupt the country’s economy, but now local authorities have come up with innovative ways of getting the vital liquid flowing.
Oil installations and pipelines around the northern hub of Kirkuk, also an ethnically tense city riven by divisions between its Arab, Kurd and Turkmen inhabitants, have been targeted by at least 290 acts of sabotage since Saddam Hussein fell in April 2003.
Prior to the US-led invasion of Iraq, these northern oilfields produced between 700,000 and 800,000 barrels per day (bpd) but now they struggle to reach 500,000 bpd.
An oil ministry official said in July that Iraq had lost around $11.35 billion from damage to its oil infrastructure and lost revenue since crude exports resumed in June 2003.
In its latest budget, the Iraqi government has set aside three billion dollars for oil sector investment, which can be drawn from oil exports â€” provided the pipelines are pumping.
The last coordinated attack on October 20 hit a network of 16 oil and gas pipelines, bringing the entire system to a standstill.
An official from the Northern Oil Company said the damage will be repaired some time next week, adding however that large cracks had appeared in the oil pipelines, most of which are more than 35 years old.
After the repairs, a week of tests will further delay the pumping of oil to the Baiji refinery north of Baghdad and to Turkey’s Ceyhan terminal on the Mediterranean, he said.
Now a new pipeline is being built that will carry much more oil from Kirkuk to Baiji and should offer insurgents less easy prey.
“This oil pipeline will be buried several metres underground so that no explosive device can reach it,” said the official, with the existing pipelines running along the roadside offering an easy target for rebels.
The ministries of defence and oil last week also drew up a new security plan, with US help, to protect the region’s oil facilities from attack, said Iraqi General Anwar Hama Amin.
US forces are to intensify their patrols in the area as well as bring in air surveillance, especially of the pipeline running to Turkey.
The increased surveillance will also monitor electric cables bringing vital power to production facilities that are likewise favoured by insurgents looking for easy prey.
Local tribal leaders have been contacted in the area in the hope of bringing them in on the surveillance operation, but they are all too often impotent to do anything about the attacks.
“Alone, I can do nothing and it’s impossible for me to give guarantees, insecurity is total in the region,” said Sheikh Abdel Rahman al-Assi of Kirkuk’s Obaid tribe.
The head of the Jbur tribe in Hawijah, Karim Khalaf, said that he wants the attacks to stop because when they do occur, “we are the first victims.”
“American forces search the area and arrest young men, homes close to where attacks happen are abandoned because of the fires (started by the bombs) and finally the flames burn our crops,” he said.
Amin, in charge of oil infrastructure protection forces in the north, told AFP that he had 4,000 men to secure the sensitive sites.
The force protects an area stretching from oilfields 55 kilometres north of Kirkuk to production and refining facilities 110 kilometres west of the city.
Amin says his men have modern equipment, both for fighting and for communicating. Watchtowers have been set up to monitor the oil pipelines and dissuade rebels from planting their bombs.