Targeting weak points: Iraq's oil
By Richard Giragosian
As with all models of asymmetrical warfare, a
central element in the strategy of the Iraqi insurgency
has been to attack weak point targets of least
resistance, mainly through rudimentary attacks on supply
lines, transports, or convoys and sabotage of the most
vulnerable points of the Iraqi infrastructure. Seeking
to enhance the disruptive effects of their attacks, the
insurgents have also implemented specific attacks on the
networks of oil pipelines.
attacks seek to disrupt the overall reconstruction
effort and, with the Iraqi oil sector playing such a
significant role both in terms of post-conflict
economics and regional geopolitics, also serve as a
major psychological blow to the stabilization effort.
These attacks on pipelines have centered on the
inherent vulnerabilities of the pipeline networks, an
element of the infrastructure that although fairly easy
to repair, remains difficult to defend. Additionally,
insurgents have attacked related targets: electrical
grids and transmission lines, oil installations and
facilities, and storage tanks.
of pipelines: Fostering a north-south divide
With a network of some 6,000 kilometers of oil
pipelines, the simplicity of acts of sabotage and damage
offer a relatively easy and inviting target for
insurgents. The attacks on oil production in the
northern sector of Iraq, for example, are seen as one of
the most daunting short-term obstacles to the imperative
of reconstructing the country's energy sector. Oil
industry analysts have affirmed 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.
Some Iraqi oil,
perhaps as much as 200,000 to 300,000 barrels per day
(bpd), is being reinjected into oil reservoirs in the
north due to constraints on both domestic processing
ability as well as export outlets. As of August 2003,
roughly 40 percent of northern Iraqi production was
being transferred to the Baiji refinery, with the
balance reinjected into the fields, ostensibly to
maintain pressure. This means, however, that crude oil
production is overstated by a level equivalent to the
volume of oil reinjected (as it is not available for
refining or export, but is still counted as production).
As of December 2003, total oil production in
Iraq recovered to a daily average of almost 2 million
barrels per day (mbd), excluding the crude oil that is
being reinjected, with exports reaching almost 1.5
million mbd. But the vast majority of that output is
from the southern fields, with the targeting of the
northern sector seriously hindering production in the
northern fields. This north-south divide also has
important implications for domestic politics and
stability, and exacerbates the complexities of power
between the self-sufficient Kurds in the north, the
emboldened Shi'ites in the south and the disgruntled
Sunnis in between.
The key factor constraining
future growth in Iraqi oil production centers on its
export capacity. Current exports of crude oil are
limited to only one external route: passage through the
Mina al-Bakr terminal on the Persian Gulf. This reliance
on a sole export route is an inherent restraint on
potential export expansion, especially as the Mina
al-Bakr terminal is now nearing its operational
capacity. And although there are plans to reopen a
second port facility at the nearby Khor al-Amaya, with
an initial capacity of about 500,000 bpd, this is not
likely in the short term. This constraint only elevates
the strategic importance of the export pipeline route to
the Turkish port of Ceyhan.
pipeline from Kirkuk to the Turkish port of Ceyhan was
attacked twice in June 2003 and the pipeline from the
giant Rumeila field in the south was also blown up twice
by insurgents. With a nominal capacity of 1.6 mbd, the
480-kilometer Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline accounted for some
40 percent of Iraqi pre-war oil exports, but has yet to
fully reopen since the March/April 2003 war for any
sustained use beyond tests of its general technical
condition. The Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline is also expected
to be limited to only about 500,000 bpd for the medium
term. Nevertheless, this pipeline is strategically
important but is an especially vulnerable target given
its route southwest through Bayji in the Sunni triangle
where resistance is strongest, before turning north
The economic costs
According to some market analyses, the level of
attacks in the northern fields seriously questions the
likelihood for any resumption of crude oil exports
through the oil pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan
on the Mediterranean Sea. The economic costs of these
attacks and disruptions are also serious. Specifically,
the blockage of oil exports from the northern fields to
the port of Ceyhan costs Iraq in two ways. The first
economic cost stems from the fact that a functioning and
secure export route, such as the route to Ceyhan, offers
a fairly quick avenue toward a significant rise in the
total Iraqi output, perhaps by as much as an additional
1 million bpd. This is seen in the levels that Iraq
achieved several years before the March/April 2003 war
even despite the poor overall state of its oil
The second economic cost is just
as important, particularly as it affects the most
vulnerable of the population. The sabotage of the oil
industry directly affects the Iraqi population by
creating sudden and severe shortages of refinery
products such as gasoline and, as sabotage of targets
ranging from pipelines to electricity stations that
provide power to refineries, coupled with technical
breakdowns due to faulty machinery, have led to a
chronic shortage of gasoline and heating oil throughout
much of the country.
The resulting shortages of
crucial oil products also lead to greater Iraqi
frustration and anger, and exacerbate a lessening of
credibility and legitimacy for the coalition. For
example, as the price of the liquefied petroleum gas
(LPG) has doubled in recent months, all Iraqi families
are affected since they rely on it for all cooking, and
especially for the hobutz flat bread, a basic
staple for all Iraqi families.
To offset these
shortages, the United States-led Coalition Provisional
Authority (CPA) has begun a broad effort to import
gasoline from Kuwait, although this has led to some
problems with allegations of unfair/improper pricing
arrangements with Kuwaiti suppliers. Additional imports
of oil products by truck from Turkey were also curtailed
in late 2003, as drivers have come under increased
attack on northern roads.
The nature of
attacks on pipelines and infrastructure
generally two types of these attacks: the first
comprising a general looting and plundering of the oil
infrastructure, including fields, pumping stations,
pipelines, and refineries. In this first category,
elements of organized (and unorganized) crime are
involved, as demonstrated with the seizure of a barge
carrying 1,000 tons of stolen Iraqi oil. Smugglers are
typically shipping oil to Iran, which then re-flags and
The second type of attacks is a
much more serious threat and comes from the real
insurgency, comprising members of the opposition,
including Ba'ath or radical Sunni groups like Ansar
al-Islam, and fringe al-Qaeda elements.
Defending and responding to the
The most important aspect of defending
the pipeline network has been the formation of an Iraqi
Facilities Protection Force, a form of infrastructure
police that utilizes native Iraqis to monitor and guard
against pipeline sabotage. First announced in September
2003, the administration initially sought US$60 million
to train and equip an "oil infrastructure security
force", whose sole purpose will be protecting Iraq's oil
facilities. Additional funding was also sought for a
"quick reaction pipeline repair team" that would be
dispatched to damaged pipelines within 96 hours after
the site had been secured. The plan also included
measures to provide "continuous personal security" to
Iraq's oil minister and his director-generals.
The CPA has also sought to enhance energy
security through a complicated combination of security
arrangements utilizing US military personnel,
independent security contractors, and local tribes
living along the pipeline routes. Securing the full
480-kilometer segment of the Ceyhan pipeline is a
priority of this plan and the number of Iraqi guards has
been steadily increasing past the initial 4,000, with
more local tribes being hired to guard the
By November 2003, the plan was
progressing rapidly and Colonel Robert Nicholson, chief
engineer of the 4th Infantry Division based in northern
Iraq, confirmed a force would be in place by
mid-November. The force, dubbed Task Force Shield,
consists of US military personnel, independent security
contractors and local tribes living along the nearly
1,000-kilometer pipeline who have been employed to
protect it from saboteurs.
The reliance on a mix
of private contractors for pipeline security has been
somewhat controversial, however. A $39.5 million
contract was signed in August 2003 with the Erinys
International security firm of South Africa to improve
security along the northern pipeline system. This firm,
an international business-risk consultant, is engaged in
the recruitment, screening and hiring of some 6,500
Iraqis to guard 140 key installations, including oil
wellheads, pipelines and refineries and electricity and
Although this firm is also
engaged in providing "protection services" to such
high-profile contractors as Bechtel and Halliburton's
subsidiary Kellogg Brown and Root, little is actually
known of Erinys International. The Johannesburg-based
company is barely a year old, and although its website
names five managers and directors, most of whom have
been affiliated with Armor Holdings, a Florida-based
security company and Defense Systems Limited, a British
company which merged with Armor in 1997, its ownership
structure remains opaque.
This firm and its
staff have been further plagued by a series of questions
over its security work in the Niger Delta and Angola,
its role in protecting the British Petroleum pipeline in
Colombia, and have been subjected to allegations of
human rights violations at the Ashanti gold mine in
In addition to Erinys, other key players
in this privatized security effort include DynCorp,
which is recruiting and training the revamped Iraqi
police force, and Northrop's subsidiary Vinnell, which
is implementing a $48 million contract to train a new
The outlook for
the Iraqi pipeline security, and for overall energy
security, corresponds to the outlook for the broader
security situation in the country as a whole. For both
energy security and overall stability, the key
determinant will be the formation of an effective Iraqi
force capable of meeting the daily threats posed by the
insurgency to the security of both the energy sector and
to the population at large. But the imperative of the
economic reconstruction and the need for reliable energy
to offset shortages and disruptions in electricity and
heating mandate a comprehensive safeguarding of the
vulnerable oil sector.
Pattern of attacks
June 12: Attack along the 960 kilometer
pipeline that carries crude oil from Iraq's northern
fields near Kirkuk to Turkey's port of Ceyhan on the
June 19: Explosion in
Bayji refinery complex about 200 kilometers north of
June 22: Explosion in natural gas
line near Hit, a city about 152 kilometers northwest of
June 23: Gas pipeline explosion
outside the town of Abidiyah Gaarbiga, near the Syrian
border in western Iraq.
June 24: Explosion
near Barwanah pipeline carries crude to al-Dawrah
refinery in Baghdad.
June 26: Explosion near
al-Fatha near the River Tigris.
Attack on pipeline near al-Basrah.
Saboteurs blew up part of a pipeline near Bayji.
August 12: Attack near al-Taji near
August 15: Explosion near Bayji.
August 16: Explosion near Bayji.
September 8: Attack on pipeline from the
Jabour oil field 32 kilometers southeast of Kirkuk to
the main pipeline that originates there.
September 18: Attack on pipeline
from Kirkuk to Ceyhan.
October 11: Attack
on pipeline from Zab to Kirkuk.
Pipeline explosion near the city of Hadeetha, 200
kilometers northwest of Baghdad.
Explosion near natural gas pipeline 48 kilometers south
October 23: Bomb attack on an oil
pipeline 240 kilometers north of Baghdad.
November 1 Explosion at oil pipeline
about 15 kilometers north of Tikrit.
4: Explosion at a pipeline plant in Zumar, 60
kilometers northwest of Mosul.
Mohammed al-Zibari, distribution manager for the Oil
Distribution Company was shot and wounded in the
northern city of Mosul in what seems to be the first
assassination attempt on officials from an Iraqi oil
firm. Zibari's son was killed in the attack.
November 17: Blast 2 kilometers east of the
Bayji refinery, at a pipeline taking fuel oil to the
Daura refinery, in a southern suburb of Baghdad.
Resulting damage on the power supply line to the 300,000
bpd Bayji refinery, located 250 kilometers north of
Baghdad, and forced a two-day electricity shutdown.
November 18: Explosion on oil pipeline in the
region of Mashruh al-Therthar, southwest of the city of
Samarra. The pipeline feeds the Daura refineries in
November 22: Abdel Salam Qanbar, an
Iraqi police colonel in charge of security for oil
installations in the northern city of Mosul was shot and
killed by unknown attackers in a vehicle.
November 22: Club inside the Iraqi Northern
Oil Company compound in Kirkuk, 240 kilometers north of
Baghdad, was hit during the night by mortar shells
wounding three foreign nationals.
23: Blast on a pipeline transporting gas from the
Jambur oil field to the Bayji refinery caused fire so
huge its glow at night is visible from Kirkuk, 30
kilometers north of Jambur.
November 26: Oil
pipeline linking oil fields in northern Iraq to the
Bayji refinery on fire near the village of Sharqat,
about 48 kilometers north of Bayji.
9: Explosion on a gas pipeline that runs from Kirkuk
to a bottled gas factory north of Baghdad.
December 10: Explosion at point 135
kilometers west of Kirkuk on oil pipeline linking the
Bayji and Daura refineries.
Blaze on a pipeline south of Baghdad causing significant
December 20: Rocket-propelled
grenades hit storage tanks in southern Baghdad. The
resulting fires burned about 2.6 million gallons of
gasoline. Also, rocket-propelled grenades cause pipeline
explosion in the al-Mashahda area 24 kilometers north of
December 21: Explosion on pipeline
in the al-Mashahda region, 50 kilometers north of
Baghdad. Pumping station near Bayji refinery attacked
December 22: Explosion in Riad
about 45 kilometers west of Kirkuk on fuel pipeline
between Kirkuk's oil fields and Iraq's biggest refinery
in Baiji, parallel to the crucial pipeline between
Kirkuk and the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.
Fire on pipeline supplying Bayji refinery with crude
from the oil fields of Kirkuk at point about 50
kilometers northeast of refinery.
7: Explosion hits pipeline connecting oil fields to
a pumping station in the area around Hassiba, 135
kilometers west of Kirkuk. Northern Oil Company Director
General Adel Kazzaz said, "The fuel line was used for
domestic market needs and filling up tankers that export
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