With the recent reduction in political violence, the Iraqi government is
looking to make greater use of the nation's formidable oil wealth, a frequent
target of Iraq's varied insurgent groups.
Iraq and the coalition have set out a new strategy aimed at protecting the oil
industry, including the 7,500-kilometer network of pipelines that cross all
over the country. A force of 17,000 military personnel supported by helicopters
and advanced communications equipment is responsible for securing the oil
sector. General Hameed Abdullah, commander of the force, said that by 2012 his
men will be able to handle the security of Iraq's
oil infrastructure and stop the existing smuggling and sabotage.
Last year, Iraqi Minister of Oil Hussain al-Shahristani indicated that the
monthly average of attacks on the oil sector had dropped significantly, from 30
in 2007 to only four in 2008. Al-Shahristani attributed the drop in sabotage to
the participation in security operations of Sunni tribal fighters of the Sahwa
History and background
The Iraqi economy has always been dependent on oil revenues. None of the
governments in Iraq's modern history have worked to change that situation
despite the oil sector's vulnerability. Conflicts with Iran and the United
States have caused significant damage to the oil industry since 1980.
After the US-led invasion of 2003, Iraqi oil installations became attractive
targets for different insurgent and armed groups. More than 500 attacks took
place between 2003 and 2008. The country lost US$12 billion and reconstruction
The armed threat on the oil sector can be explained by recognizing the acts and
ideologies of the following five categories of insurgents:
Al-Qaeda and affiliate groups
Targeting oil is a major element of al-Qaeda's global strategy. In 2004, Osama
bin Laden called for an intensification of attacks on the energy infrastructure
in Iraq and the Gulf:
"Exhausting America in Iraq today economically and morally is a golden
opportunity. Do not miss that opportunity. One of the biggest reasons behind
our enemies' domination over our countries is to steal our oil. Do the best
that you can to stop the biggest robbery in history. The oil price should be at
least 100 dollars a barrel. Work hard and concentrate your operations on oil,
especially in Iraq and the Gulf … I urge you to strike the support lines and
the oil lines, plant the double mines that kill and leave no wounded and
assassinate the companies' owners, who supply the enemy with what it needs,
whether in Riyadh, Kuwait, Jordan, Turkey and elsewhere".
Al-Qaeda affiliate groups played an effective role in targeting the oil
industry in post-invasion Iraq. Most of the attacks occurred in the Sunni areas
where the Salafi-Jihadis were active.
Despite the retreat of the Salafi-jihadi groups in Iraq, it is expected that
the oil sector will always be an attractive target for them. An article by a
Salafist writer using the name Abu Musa'ab al-Najdi was posted in many Salafi
forums, hailing the mujahideen's success in preventing the Americans from
controlling Iraq's oil. Al-Najdi described the prospects for the near future:
"I expect that al-Qaeda's operations will concentrate on the oil targets in
Kuwait, Venezuela and the so-called Saudi Arabia in addition to the possibility
of targeting Wall Street in one way or another. Al-Qaeda will continue, but
with more concentration and specific accuracy, in preventing the American
thieves from taking advantage of Iraqi oil, especially with the possibility of
a withdrawal of part of the American forces.”
Iraqi insurgent groups
Iraqi insurgents have always believed that oil was one of the main reasons
behind the US-led invasion. When the Iraqi government approved a draft of the
hydrocarbon framework in February 2007 known as the Oil and Gas Law, all of the
insurgent groups opposed the move.
The Jihad and Reform Front issued a statement labeling the legislation as the
new face of the economic occupation. The statement suggested that control of
Iraq's oil was America's primary goal (before securing Israel and attacking
Islam) following the invasion. The front, which includes the Islamic Army in
Iraq and a wing of Ansar al-Sunnah, called on the insurgents to take the
Target all of the betrayers and brokers and everyone who participates in
passing the Oil and Gas Law.
Target all the monopolizing oil companies and their staff.
Strike all of the export crude pipelines to cut the enemy's artery but avoid
striking the internal fuel pipelines which serve the Iraqi people.
The Ba'ath party
In 1972 the Iraqi Ba'ath government announced the nationalization of the oil
industry. Saddam Hussein, who was vice-president at the time, played a major
role in the decision. The economy entered a boom for about 10 years. Even for
those who opposed the Ba'ath party, it is very hard to deny the popularity of
the nationalization of oil and the public success of the Ba'ath government's
economic policies in their early years in power in the 1970s.
After the invasion, insurgent groups aligned with al-Ba'ath took part in
attacking the oil industry. The pro-Ba'ath websites reported those attacks,
justifying them as “part of the strategy of preventing the occupying forces
from exploiting and stealing Iraq's oil wealth”.
When the Oil and Gas Law emerged, the Ba'ath party opposed it, issuing a
statement carrying slogans like "Oil is for the people of Iraq and we will cut
the hand that delivers it to America" and "No free Iraq without free oil". The
statement declared, "Preserving the nationalization of oil is one of the most
important goals of the resistance."
Militias, gangs and tribes of southern Iraq
Most of Iraq's oil reserves are located in the south. Al-Basra province has the
largest reserves in Iraq but suffered only a few al-Qaeda style attacks after
the invasion. Al-Basra, however, was subject to smuggling activities and
various types of sabotage. In an exclusive interview with Jamestown, Assim
Jihad, the spokesman of the Iraqi Ministry of Oil, referred to these activities
as “the other terror”.
Jihad indicated that gangs have frequently punctured the pipeline network to
steal crude oil and other fuels, adding, "Oil smuggling has been an effective
economic activity in this area for years. Many gangs attack the oil
institutions when the government tries to crack down on their illegal
behavior." However, Jihad points out that there has always been fewer attacks
on the pipeline network in the Shi'ite south than in the Sunni areas.
At the peak of their confrontation with the coalition in 2004, a group of
supporters of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatened to destroy 75%
of the oil pipelines in the south if the Americans did not cease military
operations directed at Muqtada's followers in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf.
The threat was not implemented, but the intention of targeting the oil sector
demonstrated that Shi'ite militias considered such attacks a military option in
Lately, the tribes have played a generally positive role in the stabilization
of Iraq, but General Hameed Abdullah, commander of Iraq's oil protection force,
criticized some of the tribes in al-Basra, describing them as uncooperative and
accusing them of failing to help the police to stop oil smuggling carried out
by fellow tribesmen. The general said members of his force work under difficult
circumstances, as the government supports and arms the tribes, but no law
exists to protect the law-enforcement body.
The Kurdish PKK
As part of their ongoing conflict with Turkey, the cross-border Kurdish rebels
of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan - PKK) frequently
attack the export pipeline which links Kirkuk and the Turkish port of Ceyhan.
So far the PKK attacks have occurred inside Turkey. Last November the PKK
carried out an attack in Turkey's Mardin province, though it had no effect on
the flow of the crude in the pipeline. The presence of the group in northern
Iraq and its conflict with Turkey will remain a potential threat for the Iraqi
The consolidation of the Iraqi security forces was not the only reason behind
the drop in attacks on the Iraqi oil industry. In his interview with Jamestown,
Oil Ministry spokesman Assim Jihad identified four key factors behind the
The growing social awareness among the population of the importance of the
country's natural resources; the propaganda of the insurgents has not been as
successful as it once was; and exhortations to attack the pipelines because
they pump oil to Israel no longer have much effect.
The role of the tribally-based and US-armed Sahwa in improving regional
The American surge strategy and improved coordination between the American
military and Iraqi provincial forces and authorities.
The increase in the size and capability of the Iraqi security forces.
The threat posed by the five groups specified in this article to Iraq's oil
industry is unlikely to dissipate any time soon. These groups criticize the
industry's corruption and the rivalries among political factions over oil
exploitation in Iraq. They refer also to the frequent fuel and electricity
shortages in Iraq and the suffering of the people. 
A lack of transparency has eroded the people's confidence in the oil sector,
creating frustration that can lead to radicalization. No longer enjoying the
advantage of having the world's third-largest oil reserves (or first-largest,
as many Iraqis believe), many Iraqis remember the era of oil-funded development
in the 1970s as the "good old days", even if they were under Ba'athist rule at
the time. Translating security improvements into development and job
opportunities will mark a major step forward for the elected government in
1. See a statement by the Ba'ath party on alrafedean.com, February 14, 2008;
and an article by Dr Ashraf al-Hilli on aliraqnews.com, June 23, 2007.