February 21, 2006

Bonfires of the Insanities

Iraqi oil is being consumed, but not in ways that make any sense. It is being bombed, exploded, burned, leaked, and wasted in huge amounts because the United States and Iraqi forces cannot and have not been able to protect the pipelines, the refineries, and other installations.

In 2003, before the invasion, we heard how the United States was planning to protect the oil fields from any Saddam Hussein attempt to sabotage them, as he did with Kuwaiti oil fields in 1991. We were somehow able to do that. No oil fields burned. It was widely believed that Iraq's oil reserves, reportedly the second largest behind Saudi Arabia's, would be its salvation, the fuel for its reconstruction after the war.

Last year, we heard about the formation of Iraqi oil battalions, organized to protect the oil infrastructure from the insurgents. A former Sunni Ba'ath leader was put in charge of this task, a ploy some in the American leadership regarded as one good way to obtain Sunni cooperation in the reconstruction of Iraq. As we will learn, that was probably a huge mistake.

Most of the press reports of attacks by insurgents in Iraq focus on the car bombings and roadside bombs that kill American military, Iraqi police, and innocent civilians. What we don't hear much about is that there is, on average, an attack on the Iraqi oil infrastructure every other day. Last year, 186 attacks killed 47 engineers and 91 police and security guards, resulting in as much as $10 billion in lost oil revenues for Iraq. Just this January, insurgents blew up the pipeline supplying oil to Turkey.

Reuters reports
That means another month of exports grinding along near one million barrels per day, robbing Iraq, which sits on the world's third biggest oil reserves, of badly needed revenue to rebuild. "We were hoping to improve the rate (of exports) to 1.3 million bpd this month, but that is out of the question now," a senior Iraqi oil official told Reuters. Poor security has left oil workers and facilities vulnerable to attack. There is little or no strategic planning, investment is scarce and much of Iraq's infrastructure is old and damaged.

The sad fact remains that post-war Iraqi oil production still lags behind the rate of pre-war oil production under Hussein and, last month, hit a post-war low.

Now, we hear on NPR's All Things Considered from the former head of the Iraqi Oil Ministry, Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum, that it is precisely those military battalions assigned to protect the oil resources of Iraq that are probably behind the destruction and sabotage. Sixteen battalions are assigned to protect 5000 miles of Iraqi oil pipeline and infrastructure, and according to NPR correspondent Anne Garrels, they are "useless," at worst, they are linked to the sabotage. Garrels reports that in some places these battalions are "ghosts," basically not where they ought to be. The battalions are also riddled with informers, facilitating attacks and disrupting repairs.

The American and Iraqi military leadership has not dealt adequately with this problem, and the American and Iraqi political leadership seems to be ignoring it. It is the elephant in the room that no one seems to want to confront. Sixteen Iraqi military battalions that are essentially active allies of the insurgency and a bulwark against the successful reconstruction of Iraqi oil resources arfe pretty hard to ignore, but the American and Iraqi leaderships apparently have no idea how to deal with this reality.

As these pipelines burn, and the bonfires are lit at refineries, and as newly repaired sections of the pipeline explode from new sabotage, there seems to be a level of insanity inherent in a policy of looking the other way. Refusal to confront this severe problem could be fatal. How can we expect any semblance of Iraqi recovery if the country's major source of income is repeatedly and permanently crippled?

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