On northern Iraqi oil fields, the wells seem safe but chaos reigns
KIRKUK, Iraq — Deep beneath the parched earth, there is oil. Atop it, there is chaos.
As the United States takes control of northern Iraq’s oil fields, looters have torn through. U.S. forces guard some places but are absent from others. And though the wells appear safe, their support systems have been ravaged by saboteurs.
“It’s the worst destruction that I have seen in my life. It will set Iraq back many years,” said Shad, an electrical engineer with the Northern Oil Co., who would not give his last name. His company administers all the fields of northern Iraq.
Iraq has the world’s second-largest proven crude reserves, at 112 billion barrels. But its pipelines, pumping stations and oil reservoirs have suffered for years from a dearth of funds and lack of maintenance. Now the north can add sabotage to its list of problems.
In recent years, oil has accounted for 95 percent of Iraq’s revenue, an estimated $22 billion a year. With so much money at stake, a lot of people are paying close attention.
U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks mentioned the oil situation at a Central Command briefing Monday in Qatar, saying it probably will be at least a few weeks before crude is flowing from Iraq again because fields in the north and south need to be cleared of explosives and repaired.
“We will work as fast as we can,” Maj. Bud Morgan, a U.S. Army engineer, said Monday.
Local engineers said the wells were largely untouched, but production cannot begin until damaged equipment is replaced. The United States says it is trying to dispatch independent contractors to determine just what needs to be done.
“It’s a big system,” Morgan said. “Even when we have the equipment, it will be a slow process to get everything in place and going.”
Iraq’s primary oil fields are in the south near the Kuwaiti border, and in the north around Kirkuk.
U.S.-led forces have secured all 1,000 oil wells in the south. Brigades put out fires at four Iraqi wells sabotaged by Saddam Hussein’s loyalists, with Kuwaiti firefighters extinguishing the last one Sunday. Seven more blazes went out by themselves.
Last week, the United States’ Kurdish allies seized Kirkuk, Iraq’s No. 2 oil center, which pumps up to 900,000 barrels a day. Brooks said Monday that all of northern Iraq’s fields had been secured, although one well was still burning.
Though early surveys suggest the northern oil fields appear undamaged, much of the support equipment in the area — from offices to computer data to heavy machinery — has been sabotaged or looted.
Inside the Northern Oil Co. offices in the Baba oil fields, the air was smoky Monday, four days after someone looted the place as Saddam’s forces quit Kirkuk. The Americans entered the city on Friday.
“Here, there were 10 to 15 computers hooked up. Here … oh my God, look here,” Shad said, pointing to the damage as he slipped on broken glass and junk.
Addy, another engineer, fumed as he gazed at the rubble of his laboratory. Shattered bottles of chemicals lay strewn on the floor and shelves. Green liquid mixed with litter on his office floor.
“They stole everything — light bulbs, fans, phones, fax machines, computers,” he said. “And then they destroyed the building.”
Addy accused the Kurdish fighters opposed to Saddam — and working with U.S. troops — of causing the damage.
“That’s not true,” said Col. Ben Schrader, chief of the Army engineering team at Baba. He said it was unclear who was responsible and refused to say if the United States suspected Saddam’s retreating forces of the sabotage.
Saddam’s forces booby-trapped hundreds of Kuwait’s oil wells after invading the country in 1990, and blew them up during the 1991 Gulf War as U.S. forces drove Iraq from Kuwait. It took months for the fires to be put out.
In Kirkuk, American military officials met Monday with Iraqi oil engineers and executives, including some who had been members of Saddam’s Baath party. Among the participants were the director of Kirkuk’s oil field, the assistant general manager of Northern Oil and Kurdish opposition figures.
Imposing order and restoring normal production were the topics of the day. It’s a task as towering as the oil wells are deep, and it’s going to require the labors of people very unaccustomed to working together.
“We need everyone’s cooperation,” Shad said. “All the ethnic groups must forget historical hatreds and pick up the pieces to bring back what we had.”