BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Grappling with a shortage of trained oil police and equipment, Iraq may not be able to protect its oil facilities despite intelligence suggesting new attacks on the vital sector, a security official said Sunday.
Major General Hamid Ibrahim, head of Iraq’s oil protection force, blamed al Qaeda for recent attacks on Baiji refinery, the country’s largest, and the Iraq-Turkey oil pipeline, and said information showed insurgents would continue such attacks.
“We have confirmed information that Al-Qaeda will target the oil facilities ... All intelligence information indicates to continuous threats and we need to solve the real lack of oil police cadre,” Ibrahim told Reuters in an interview.
“If we do not have a sufficient number of police, its (oil facilities) protection is hard because time is running out, especially with the withdrawal of (Iraqi) army troops at the end of the year from cities.”
Iraq is looking to its vast oil resources — some of the world’s largest — for future stability and prosperity as it emerges from the dark days of sectarian violence unleashed after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Deals struck with international oil companies, if successfully developed, could quadruple its output capacity to Saudi levels of 12 million barrels per day by 2017 and allow it to rebuild after decades of war, sanctions and neglect.
But renewed threats against oil infrastructure represent a challenge to Iraqi security forces as U.S. troops withdraw fully at the end of the year according to a joint security agreement.
Tuesday, Iraqi security forces foiled a plot to bomb Baiji oil refinery just days after militants attacked it, killing four workers and detonating bombs that sparked a raging fire and shut down the plant completely for two days.
A bomb Tuesday evening also shut down the Iraq-Turkey pipeline, which carries a quarter of Iraq’s crude exports.
Ibrahim said it was imperative to increase the number of oil police, currently at around 40,000, which he said made up about 70 percent of the force required.
“We need 12,000 police officers to fill the shortage,” Ibrahim said. “If the expansion of the oil sector continues, we need to increase the number according to the expansion, just like all the neighboring countries.”
The oil police chief said another problem was that in most of Iraq’s southern oil fields, security forces had enlisted the help of about 3,500 civilian guards, whom he regarded as a weakness.
“It is hard to arm those guards because they do not have any status as policemen. They should be given permanent jobs so we can deal with them and take proper control,” he said.
Oil smuggling was also a threat, Ibrahim said, and was used by organizations like al Qaeda to fund their activities.
“The gangs are stealing oil from pipelines unprotected by the oil police. Therefore, I insist that (we) put all the oil pipelines and strategy lines under the control of oil police, not contractors, to curb smuggling,” Ibrahim said. He said 28 oil police stations had been set up around Iraq to help combat smuggling, adding that more than 450 oil tankers being used for smuggling had been seized so far.
Writing by Serena Chaudhry; Editing by Rania El Gamal