Minding Its Business
Saudi Arabia, which has demonstrated its willingness to use its vast oil reserves as a foreign policy tool, has not acted to aid U.S. efforts to rebuild Iraq.
Fencing in looters and saboteurs in Iraq
Too many people in and outside of Iraq are hoping to deny Iraq a better future through a campaign of sabotage and plunder of the country's neglected oil facilities. The problem, and possible solutions.
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Fencing in looters and saboteurs in Iraq
With its social and economic infrastructure in shambles, it will take many years before Iraq can offer the world markets something other than oil. In the mean time the joint success of Americans and Iraqis to rebuild Iraq depends on the ability to bring the country's crude back online. Without oil revenues Iraqis will soon be disillusioned with America's ability to rebuild and reform their country and Americans frustrated by the huge cost inflicted on their struggling economy by what James Fallows from the Atlantic Monthly once called "the fifty-first state."
Too many people in and outside of Iraq are hoping to deny Iraq a better future through a campaign of sabotage and plunder of the country's neglected oil facilities. Hardly a day goes by without an attack on pipelines and refineries in the northern and southern parts of the country. These attacks affect Iraq's export capability and create an inhospitable investment climate, deterring international oil companies from developing in Iraq the infrastructure required to make it a leading oil exporting country.
The allies have taken many steps to address the problem. Helicopters have begun patrolling pipelines and oil facilities; the number of Iraqi guards has been increased; rapid response teams mobilized quickly to repair injured pipelines and a public education campaign is in the making designed to communicate to the Iraqis the importance of pipeline security to the rebuilding of their country. But this is not enough.
Who are the attackers?
There are two groups of villains: looters and saboteurs. Each has a different agenda. The looters are petty criminals who have no compunctions about robbing state owned assets, whether museum artifacts or natural resources, for their own benefit. They puncture pipelines, siphon off petrol and sell it to the highest bidder either on the black market or across the border in Iran, Turkey and Syria. These are the same people who loot electrical cables and melt them into copper bars while their fellow countrymen sit in the darkness. Fuel smuggling became one of the profitable industries during the sanctions years and those who make their wealth from it are likely to hold on to their turf for as long as possible.
The saboteurs, on the other hand, are economic terrorists with a politically motivated agenda. Their attacks aim to cripple the country's oil production in order to wreak havoc and instability intended to underscore the American failure to stabilize the country and increase public opposition to the occupation. Behind the sabotage are mostly Sunni elements, particularly those loyal to Saddam's regime as well as Wahhabis, a group called Al Awda and another group of Syrian Arabs from the Damascus region called the Black Flags. The saboteurs are tactically sophisticated. Their targets are carefully chosen and their explosives are well placed. They tend to focus on pipelines carrying crude oil to refinery hubs or those lines that are being used for export such as the pipeline from Kirkuk to the Turkish Mediterranean terminal of Ceyhan. This is the main conduit from the giant Kirkuk oil fields, which produce 40 percent of Iraq's oil production. Every day this pipeline in not operational costs Iraq's tottering economy $7 million.
The number of the saboteurs who are Saddam loyalists is likely to diminish as the coalition weeds out the last remnants of the Baath party leadership. However, radical Islamic organizations are likely to pursue oil targets as part of a holy war against the U.S. Many of those are funded by elements in Iraq's neighboring countries, primarily Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The pipeline attacks are much more than a tactical nuisance. Their devastating impact on Iraqi reconstruction could have strategic implication on U.S. standing in the Middle East as well as on its prestige and economy. The coalition forces should, therefore, spare no effort combating both looters and saboteurs even at the cost of the occupation being less benevolent.
Already stretched to the limit, the 160,000 coalition troops cannot secure every mile of the 4,000 miles of Iraq's pipeline system. But there are some measures that should be taken. First, the coalition should invest more assets in walling the looters in and the saboteurs out by sealing the 2,000 miles of Iraq's porous borders through which stolen oil is exported and subversive elements imported. This could be done by creating physical barriers in some places while monitoring the borders with surveillance equipments in others. More importantly, clamping down on oil smugglers requires stringent control over tanker-trucks operating in the vicinity of Iraq's border checkpoints and over cargo documentation of vessels operating in the Shatt al Arab waterway, Iraq's outlet to the Persian Gulf.
Second, the pipeline routes should be declared a closed military zone out of reach to unauthorized Iraqis. Those who come near the lines should know they put their life at risk.
Third, the interim authority should increase the penalty to those caught damaging the pipelines, treating the act as aggression rather than a petty crime. A no less effective way to bring the looters to rethink the utility of their business is to increase oil supply in Iraq even if this requires importing more oil from neighboring countries. Shortage of gasoline and kerosene, especially toward the winter, creates a thriving black market which, in turn, increases the motivation for young Iraqis to enter the smuggling business. Reducing the demand for smuggled oil is the most effective way to fight the plunder.
Finally, in addition to the 5,500 Iraqis who have been already hired to guard petroleum facilities, the U.S. should recruit the help of villagers and tribesmen living near pipelines and hire them to keep an eye on the oil passing through their territory. There are many incentives the U.S. can offer in exchange for the tribes' cooperation. Villages who live up to the task should be financially rewarded and should be first in line to enjoy civilian projects. A contract has been awarded to a private foreign firm to hire another 6,500 guards to defend 150 other sites.
Though some of these measures may seem harsh they may not suffice to deter the jihadists who are willing to sacrifice their lives to fight the U.S. But they could substantially reduce the motivation of looters to tamper with Iraq's oil and hence help Iraq to resume exports and earn much needed cash for its reconstruction.
Gal Luft is Executive Director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security.
Click here for Iraq Pipeline Watch: Attacks on Iraqi pipelines, oil installations, and oil personnel
Minding Its Business: Saudi Arabia, which has demonstrated its willingness to use its vast oil reserves as a foreign policy tool, has not acted to aid U.S. efforts to rebuild Iraq.