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Iraqi oil exports to north rise

Attacks fall sharply on oil pipeline to Turkey thanks to new security measures.

By Leslie SabbaghCorrespondent, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 27, 2007

Kirkuk, Iraq

A campaign to stop sabotage on the key Iraqi oil pipeline running north from Kirkuk to Turkey has led to sustained oil exports for the first time since the war began, say US officers and Iraqi officials.

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Iraq's state oil company now has 15 million barrels of crude for sale at the Turkish port of Ceyhan this month, the biggest amount at least since the war began. And foreign oil investors are taking notice.

When measured against Iraq's vast oil reserves (the world's second largest), the precious crude flowing north these days is modest. But the ability to sell – and generate revenues for the nation – is directly connected to the ability to secure the pipelines. In the first three months of this year, the pipeline from the central Iraqi refinery at Bayji (one of three in Iraq) suffered 30 attacks that caused "significant" financial loses, Iraqi officials say. But in the past six months, there have been fewer than 10 attacks.

The key, says Col. Jack Pritchard, has been the successful training of 3,000 Iraqi soldiers to guard the pipeline. A year ago, when the 3rd battalion of the US Army's 7th Field Artillery Regiment arrived in Kirkuk, many of the Iraqi guards were suspected of working with insurgents to attack pipelines, says Colonel Pritchard, the battalion commander. The bad apples were replaced, and Iraqi Army units from Baghdad were brought in. The great challenge now for the Iraqis, Pritchard says, lies in "sustaining their army and keeping themselves free of corruption."

"The benefits that can be gained from Iraq's oil potential are now starting to exceed the potential costs of instability in the North because the North has shown itself to be more stable over time," says Steve Yetiv, a professor of political science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., and author of "Crude Awakenings: Global Oil Security and American Foreign Policy."

US units and the Iraqis have also been hard at work building fortifications to make it more difficult to attack the pipeline between Kirkuk and the refinery at Bayji. The 50-mile Bayji to Kirkuk "pipeline exclusion zone" (PEZ) is to be a maze of concertina wire, ditches, high berms, and guard towers.

The "obstacle alone cannot keep people away, but it will slow them down enough so they can be captured," said Lt. Col. Bob Ruud of the Army Corps of Engineers. .

The pipeline fortifications are scheduled for completion by March at an estimated overall cost of $30 million – about the same as the estimated value of one day's oil flowing through the Bayji to Kirkuk pipeline. Most of Iraq's vast pipeline network is above ground. Early in the war, US officials explored the option of burying existing pipeline, but that was found to be too expensive.

But some are skeptical that the pipelines long-term safety is assured. James Paul, executive director of the Global Policy Forum in New York, closely follows the Iraqi oil situation.

While attacks may have gone down on the northern pipeline, Mr. Paul says that the real question is if American and Iraqi security forces can maintain the relative peace. "It's a matter of whether they can keep this thing going," he says. "They don't have a very good record anywhere in the country of maintaining these pipelines."

"It's a shell game," says Paul. He argues that when the US floods an area with troops, the insurgents simply relocate. "The insurgents are not stupid; they don't do stand-up battles with the United States."