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Iraq: Sabotage Continues To Block Oil Exports From Northern Fields

Iraqi oil production continues to be severely affected by security problems in the north of the country. A U.S. reconstruction official says that in recent months, sabotage attacks on pipelines and facilities serving the northern fields have become better organized and more concerted. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at how saboteurs are targeting oil production in the north and the strategies to counter them.

Prague, 4 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. officials say that attacks on installations in Iraq's northern oil fields are becoming increasingly well-coordinated as saboteurs seek to undermine the country's economic recovery.

Michael Merle, program manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, told Reuters this week in Baghdad that sabotage "is more concerted and better organized than it has been in the past." He called the attacks the biggest obstacle to reconstructing Iraq's oil industry, which Washington counts upon to help finance the country's future development.

The saboteurs -- identified by Washington as guerrillas loyal to ousted President Saddam Hussein and outside groups helping them -- have repeatedly blown up segments of the pipeline leading from the Kirkuk fields to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. In one notable bombing in June, the line was ruptured the day after contracts were signed for renewed exports from Iraq through Turkey.

Oil industry analysts say that the oil-field sabotage in the north is now markedly greater than in the south of the country, where oil production has risen steadily over the past months.

Today, Iraq's total oil production is back up to about 2 million barrels per day (bpd), its level prior to the U.S. invasion. But the vast majority of that output is from the southern fields.

By contrast, production in the northern fields remains choked. The Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline has yet to reopen since the March/April war for any sustained use beyond tests of its general technical condition.

Gerald Butt of the Middle East Economic Review in Nicosia, Cyprus, says the level of attacks in the northern fields today makes it unlikely that exports via Turkey will resume anytime soon: "The level of attacks in the north is such that I don't think we're going to see crude oil exported via pipeline to Ceyhan anytime soon. There are simply too many attacks and the efforts made so far to counter them haven't been successful. It is a very large area of the country, many hundreds of [kilometers] of pipelines, interconnecting pipeline networks, both for crude and products [from oil refineries], and they are very hard to police. Very easy to sabotage, very hard to protect."

Butt says the blockage of oil exports from the northern fields to Ceyhan is costly to Iraq's economy in two ways. The first is that a functioning export route could fairly quickly raise Iraq's current total output by an additional 1 million bpd. Iraq achieved that level several years before the March/April war despite the poor overall state of its oil infrastructure: "The resumption of exports [via Ceyhan] would have to build up to any sufficient level over a matter of weeks. [But] in time, I think one would see Iraq's [total] oil exports reaching a level that they were at, say a couple of years ago, and that would be somewhere in the region of 3 million barrels per day."

The second effect is that sabotage of the oil industry directly affects the Iraqi population in the form of shortages of refinery products such as gasoline. Sabotage of targets ranging from pipelines to electricity stations providing power to refineries -- coupled with technical breakdowns due to faulty machinery -- have helped create a chronic shortage of gasoline and heating oil in many parts of Iraq.

To offset the shortages, the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) is importing gasoline from Kuwait. Additional imports of oil products by truck from Turkey are reported to have fallen off in recent weeks as drivers have come under attack on northern roads.

The CPA is now seeking to step up security in the northern fields by using U.S. military personnel, independent security contractors, and local tribes living along the pipeline routes. Among the key goals is to secure the full 966-kilometer segment of the Ceyhan pipeline that lies inside Iraq.

U.S. officials signed a contract in August with a South African security firm, Erinys International, to improve security along the northern pipeline system. News reports say the company, an international business-risk consultant, is tasked with hiring 6,500 Iraqis to guard key installations, including oil wellheads, pipelines and refineries, and electricity and water facilities.