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Iraq tightens oilfield security in south

Basra, September 4, 2010

Iraq has tightened security around oil infrastructure and oilfields in the south in response to intelligence suggesting al Qaeda and other insurgent groups plan to attack oil facilities, a security official said.

Ali al-Maliki, head of the municipal security committee in the southern oil hub of Basra, said the information indicated that al Qaeda in Iraq and Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath party were switching their sights to economic targets and oil companies.

"We have received intelligence information of a plan to target oil facilities, including oilfields, by al Qaeda and Baathist insurgent groups," Maliki told Reuters in an interview.

Emerging threats against oil infrastructure represent a challenge to Iraqi security forces following the formal end of US combat operations in August and a fall in US troop numbers to 50,000. The remaining US troops will withdraw completely by the end of 2011 under a bilateral security pact.

Iraq is looking to its massive oil resources for its future stability and prosperity as it emerges from the worst of the sectarian violence set off after the 2003 US-led invasion, but it still confronts a resilient Sunni Islamist insurgency.

Deals struck with international oil majors, if successfully developed, could quadruple its output capacity to Saudi levels of 12 million barrels per day in six to seven years and allow it to rebuild after decades of war, sanctions and neglect.

But attacks against international oil companies are one of the many risks to the plan.

Tensions have mounted since an inconclusive election six months ago as Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish politicians bicker over positions and power in the next government, and attacks by insurgents against security forces appear to be on the increase.

Basra, in Iraq's Shi'ite south, has enormous strategic importance as the hub for oil exports, which account for more than 95 percent of government revenue.

Shi'ite South

"We have prepared a pre-emptive plan to protect vital oil facilities and foreign oil investors," Maliki said, without providing details.

"We have met representatives from foreign oil firms in coordination with the South Oil Company and pledged to provide full protection at the oilfields and highways they use."     Iraq's Shi'ite south, where the majority of the oilfields being developed by foreign firms are located, has been relatively safe and stable for the past two years.

It is difficult for Sunni Islamist insurgents to operate there undetected, and al Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgent groups are usually associated with attacks on oil pipelines in Iraq's north, where they continue to find safe havens.

The main threat so far in the south are the Iranian-made roadside bombs planted by Shi'ite militia to target US forces.

As US forces become less visible, some security experts speculate that Shi'ite militia might turn their attention to oil firms, either as a proxy to deter a US strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, or in an attempt at extortion. The line between insurgency and crime has become increasingly blurred in Iraq.

The head of the oil police in Basra, Brigadier Moussa Abdul Hasan, said his forces were on alert, but a lack of cooperation and coordination with the private security companies hired by oil firms was hampering their efforts.

"We are well prepared to stop any attacks and to deal with the worst scenarios," Abdul Hasan told Reuters. "Our main concerns are to keep the routes to oilfields widely used by foreign firms clear of roadside bombs." – Reuters




Tags: Iraq | Basra | Maliki | Qaeda | US troops | Oilfield security |

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