Iraq’s Kirkuk oil pipeline stretches across the northern section of the country into Turkey. Unfortunately some of the provinces it travels through like Ninewa and Salahaddin are infested with insurgents and oil smugglers who have constantly attacked it over the last several years. Usually these bombings only knock the pipeline out of service for a day or two at the most. At the beginning of March 2014 that dynamic changed. Militants not only took the pipeline out of commission, but also stayed in the vicinity, and drove off repair crews. After several failed attempts it now appears that the Iraqi government has given up trying to repair the line for the time being.
Iraq’s insurgents are attempting to cripple the country’s oil industry in the north. On March 2, 2014 militants blew up the Kirkuk line in Ain al-Jahash in Ninewa province. A week later the line was struck by two more bombs in a nearby section. Rather than conduct a hit and run operation as they had done before, militants stayed in the area after the explosions. Repair crews from the North Oil Company went out to the damaged section five times to attempt to repair it and were driven off. Even an army escort was not enough, and reportedly five workers were either wounded or killed. Oil Minister Abdul Karim Luaibi said that the pipeline would be up and running again by the third week of April, but officials at the North Oil Company told Reuters that it has given up on trying to fix it for the time being because of the danger involved. Insurgents have attacked the Kirkuk line for years now. For example, at the beginning of January and the middle of February it was hit in Salahaddin and Ninewa respectively. Last year, the line was attacked 54 times by militants and oil smugglers. The former are now changing tactics by trying to keep it offline for an extended period of time. Before they might not have been strong enough to attack and hold a stretch of the line, but now they are testing their strength and winning right now.
Knocking the pipeline out of service is having political and economic repercussions. First, the storage tanks in the north are now full because of the shut down. That has forced the North Oil Company to cut back production at the Kirkuk and Bai Hassan oil fields from around 550,000 barrels a day to 225,000, and then send the remaining production to the Baiji and Kirkuk refineries. Second, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Baghdad have been in a dispute over oil policy for months. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki recently used the power of the purse to push the matter, and stopped sending Kurdistan its monthly share of the budget. That put immense pressure upon the region, which depends upon the central government for up to 95% of its budget. After weeks of threats and accusations the two sides came to a short-term deal of having the Kurds export 100,000 barrels a day as a good will gesture. That was supposed to start in April, but because the Kirkuk line is down and out that can’t go forward. Iraq is an oil dependent country so every day that the pipeline is not operating it is costing the country money that it desperately needs. It is harming the Oil Ministry’s plans for a large increase in exports this year as well. The northern line carries around 15% of Iraq’s total exports each year, and is essential for Iraq to reach its goal. The insurgents are also holding up the deal between Irbil and Baghdad, which if ever implemented could go a long way in breaking the ice between the two sides. The militants are therefore achieving far more than just hurting Iraq’s economy with their actions.
Now that the insurgency is back it is upping its ante against the government. It has constantly attacked the Kirkuk pipeline, but with its added strength it has decided to take a stand at least for now, and keep repair crews away from it shutting down the line for more than a month now. This is depriving the country of not only money, but also affecting an attempt by the KRG and Baghdad to resolve its long-standing dispute over energy policy. Because the security forces are stretched thin fighting in Anbar and other provinces it doesn’t appear that it has the means to retake the section of the pipeline held by insurgents. More importantly, it doesn’t have the forces to protect the entire line even after the section is fixed meaning that this may happen again in the future if armed factions wanted to.
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