BASRA, Iraq Dozens of angry Shi'ite Muslim workers and tribesmen stormed a Schlumberger Ltd camp at one of Iraq's main oilfields and wrecked offices early on Monday after accusing a foreign security adviser of insulting their religion, police and employees at the field said.
Oil officials and workers at the Schlumberger drilling site in Rumaila North said the problem started when a security adviser they identified as British asked Iraqi workers to take down a flag and banners depicting a figure revered by Shi'ites.
Schlumberger was not immediately available for comment late on Monday.
According to workers and officials, when the workers refused to remove the banners, the security adviser went to do so himself and tore one portraying Imam Hussein, whose death more than 1,000 years ago is currently being commemorated by Shi'ites across the world in rituals known as Ashura.
In the ensuing row, the security adviser pulled out a gun and fired several shots, wounding an Iraqi worker and drawing dozens of people from a nearby village to join the workers in storming the Schlumberger drilling camp.
Officials of the state-run Southern Oil Company said production from the field was not affected by the incident, but oil officials said Schlumberger had suspended its operations in response, not only in Rumaila but at the other oilfields in Basra province.
"We received an order from the main administration to stop work until further notice," said an Iraqi engineer working at a Schlumberger project in Zubair oilfield in the south.
The protestors smashed up offices and severely beat the foreign security adviser, oil officials and workers said. A photograph taken by a worker at the scene showed a man with blood streaming down his face. He said it was the adviser. Security officials said the man was taken to hospital with serious injuries.
Police and the army intervened to restore order and expelled the protesters from the site.
"We advised the British security contractor to step back and leave this issue as it is very sensitive for the workers, but instead ... he went himself and removed the banners and tore one of Imam Hussein," said an Iraqi worker, who witnessed the incident.
"Workers were provoked and squabbled with the British guy, but he suddenly pulled out a pistol and started shooting, and wounded one Iraqi worker," the man said.
On Saturday, an Egyptian worker hired by Baker Hughes Inc to work at a drilling rig in Rumaila removed and tore a flag also depicting a holy Shi'ite figure, prompting Iraqi authorities to terminate his residency and expel him from the country, oil officials said.
The workhorse of Iraq's oil industry, Rumaila is operated by BP with China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) [CNPET.UL}. It has estimated reserves of 17 billion barrels and currently produces around 1.4 million bpd, more than a third of Iraq's total output of over 3 million bpd.
"The workers and villagers went on a rampage. It was a fatal mistake from the foreign security guy to provoke local workers," said an oil ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "When you operate in a mainly Shi'ite community you have to respect their traditions and norms: it's the A B C of how to work in any environment."
(Additional reporting and Writing by Ahmed Rasheed; Editing by Isabel Coles, Toni Reinhold)