With the recent reduction in political violence, the Iraqi government is looking to make greater use of the nation’s formidable oil wealth, a frequent target of Iraq’s varied insurgent groups. Iraq and the Coalition have set out a new strategy aimed at protecting the oil industry, including the 7,500-km network of pipelines that cross all over the country. A force of 17,000 military personnel supported by helicopters and advanced communications equipment is responsible for securing the oil sector. General Hameed Abdullah, commander of the force, said that by 2012 his men will be able to handle the security of Iraq’s oil infrastructure and stop the existing smuggling and sabotage (elaph.com, November 6, 2008).
Last year, the Iraqi Minister of Oil, Hussain al-Shahristani, indicated that the monthly average of attacks on the oil sector had dropped significantly, from 30 in 2007 to only 4 in 2008. Al-Shahristani attributed the drop in sabotage to the participation in security operations of Sunni tribal fighters of the Sahwa (Awakening) councils (nahrannet.net, June 25, 2008).
History and Background
The Iraqi economy has always been dependent on oil revenues. None of the governments in Iraq’s modern history have worked to change that situation despite the oil sector’s vulnerability. Conflicts with Iran and the United States have caused significant damage to the oil industry since 1980.
After the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, Iraqi oil installations became attractive targets for different insurgent and armed groups. More than 500 attacks took place between 2003 and 2008. The country lost 12 billion dollars and reconstruction efforts stumbled (elaph.com, June 6, 2008).
The armed threat on the oil sector can be explained by recognizing the acts and ideologies of the following five categories of insurgents:
Al-Qaeda and Affiliate Groups
Targeting oil is a major element of al-Qaeda’s global strategy. In 2004, Osama bin Laden called for an intensification of attacks on the energy infrastructure in Iraq and the Gulf:
"Exhausting America in Iraq today economically and morally is a golden opportunity. Do not miss that opportunity. One of the biggest reasons behind our enemies’ domination over our countries is to steal our oil. Do the best that you can to stop the biggest robbery in history. The oil price should be at least 100 dollars a barrel. Work hard and concentrate your operations on oil, especially in Iraq and the Gulf… I urge you to strike the support lines and the oil lines, plant the double mines that kill and leave no wounded and assassinate the companies’ owners, who supply the enemy with what it needs, whether in Riyadh, Kuwait, Jordan, Turkey, and elsewhere" (al-hesbah, December 15, 2004; Al-Quds al-Arabi, December 17, 2004).
Al-Qaeda affiliate groups played an effective role in targeting the oil industry in post-invasion Iraq. Most of the attacks occurred in the Sunni areas where the Salafi-Jihadis were active.
Despite the retreat of the Salafi-Jihadi groups in Iraq, it is expected that the oil sector will always be an attractive target for them. An article by a Salafist writer using the name Abu Musa’ab al-Najdi was posted in many Salafi forums, hailing the mujahideen’s success in preventing the Americans from controlling Iraq’s oil. Al-Najdi described the prospects for the near future: “I expect that al-Qaeda’s operations will concentrate on the oil targets in Kuwait, Venezuela and the so-called Saudi Arabia in addition to the possibility of targeting Wall Street in one way or another. Al-Qaeda will continue, but with more concentration and specific accuracy, in preventing the American thieves from taking advantage of Iraqi oil, especially with the possibility of a withdrawal of part of the American forces” (banor.net, May 10, 2007).
The Iraqi Insurgent Groups
Iraqi insurgents have always believed that oil was one of the main reasons behind the U.S.-led invasion. When the Iraqi government approved a draft of the hydrocarbon framework in February 2007 known as the Oil and Gas Law, all of the insurgent groups opposed the move.
The Jihad and Reform Front issued a statement labeling the legislation as the new face of the economic occupation. The statement suggested that control of Iraq’s oil was America’s primary goal (before securing Israel and attacking Islam) following the invasion. The front, which includes the Islamic Army in Iraq and a wing of Ansar al-Sunnah, called on the insurgents to take the following measures:
• Target all of the betrayers and brokers and everyone who participates in passing the Oil and Gas Law
• Target all the monopolizing oil companies and their staff
• Strike all of the export crude pipelines to cut the enemy’s artery but avoid striking the internal fuel pipelines which serve the Iraqi people
The Ba’ath Party
In 1972 the Iraqi Ba’ath government announced the nationalization of the oil industry. Saddam Hussein, who was vice-president at the time, played a major role in the decision. The economy entered a boom for about ten years. Even for those who opposed the Ba’ath party, it is very hard to deny the popularity of the nationalization of oil and the public success of the Ba’ath government’s economic policies in their early years in power in the 1970s.
After the invasion, insurgent groups aligned with al-Ba’ath took part in attacking the oil industry. The pro-Ba’ath websites reported those attacks, justifying them as “part of the strategy of preventing the occupying forces from exploiting and stealing Iraq’s oil wealth” (e.g. albasra.net, October 26, 2003).
When the Oil and Gas Law emerged, the Ba’ath party opposed it, issuing a statement carrying slogans like “Oil is for the people of Iraq and we will cut the hand that delivers it to America” and “No free Iraq without free oil.” The statement declared, “Preserving the nationalization of oil is one of the most important goals of the resistance” (albasrah.net July 10, 2007).
Militias, Gangs, and Tribes of Southern Iraq:
Most of Iraq’s oil reserves are located in the south. Al-Basra province has the largest reserves in Iraq but suffered only a few al-Qaeda style attacks after the invasion. Al-Basra, however, was subject to smuggling activities and various types of sabotage. In an exclusive interview with Jamestown, Assim Jihad, the spokesman of the Iraqi ministry of oil, referred to these activities as “the other terror.” Jihad indicated that gangs have frequently punctured the pipeline network to steal crude oil and other fuels, adding, “Oil smuggling has been an effective economic activity in this area for years. Many gangs attack the oil institutions when the government tries to crack down on their illegal behavior.” However, Jihad points out that there has always been fewer attacks on the pipeline network in the Shiite south than in the Sunni areas.
At the peak of their confrontation with the Coalition in 2004, a group of supporters of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatened to destroy 75 percent of the oil pipelines in the south if the Americans did not cease military operations directed at Muqtada’s followers in the Shiite holy city of Najaf (al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 22, 2004). The threat was not implemented, but the intention of targeting the oil sector demonstrated that Shiite militias considered such attacks a military option in the conflict.
Lately, the tribes have played a generally positive role in the stabilization of Iraq, but General Hameed Abdullah, commander of Iraq’s oil protection force, criticized some of the tribes in al-Basra, describing them as uncooperative and accusing them of failing to help the police to stop oil smuggling carried out by fellow tribesmen. The General said members of his force work under difficult circumstances, as the government supports and arms the tribes, but no law exists to protect the law-enforcement body (al-Quds al-Arabi, December 28, 2007).
The Kurdish PKK
As part of their ongoing conflict with Turkey, the cross-border Kurdish rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan – PKK) frequently attack the export pipeline which links Kirkuk and the Turkish port of Ceyhan. So far the PKK attacks have occurred inside Turkey. Last November the PKK carried out an attack in Turkey’s Mardin province, though it had no effect on the flow of the crude in the pipeline (Yeni Ozgur Politika, November 24, 2008; iraq4allnews.dk, November 22, 2008). The presence of the group in northern Iraq and its conflict with Turkey will remain a potential threat for the Iraqi oil industry (see Terrorism Focus, December 12, 2008).
The consolidation of the Iraqi security forces was not the only reason behind the drop in attacks on the Iraqi oil industry. In his interview with Jamestown, Oil Ministry spokesman Assim Jihad identified four key factors behind the security improvement:
• The growing social awareness among the population of the importance of the country’s natural resources; the propaganda of the insurgents has not been as successful as it once was; and exhortations to attack the pipelines because they pump oil to Israel no longer have much effect
• The role of the tribally-based and U.S.-armed Sahwa (Awakening councils) in improving regional security
• The American surge strategy and improved coordination between the American military and Iraqi provincial forces and authorities
• The increase in the size and capability of the Iraqi security forces
The threat posed by the five groups specified in this article to Iraq’s oil industry is unlikely to dissipate any time soon. These groups criticize the industry’s corruption and the rivalries among political factions over oil exploitation in Iraq. They refer also to the frequent fuel and electricity shortages in Iraq and the suffering of the people.  A lack of transparency has eroded the people’s confidence in the oil sector, creating frustration that can lead to radicalization. No longer enjoying the advantage of having the world’s third-largest oil reserves (or first-largest, as many Iraqis believe), many Iraqis remember the era of oil-funded development in the 1970s as the “good old days,” even if they were under Ba’athist rule at the time. Translating security improvements into development and job opportunities will mark a major step forward for the elected government in Baghdad.
1. See a statement by the Ba’ath party on alrafedean.com, February 14, 2008; and an article by Dr.Ashraf al-Hilli on aliraqnews.com, June 23, 2007.