BAGHDAD, June 13 (UPI) -- More of Iraq's oil has seen the light of day and exports have realized post-invasion records as measures to stem attacks and other interference have proved successful along the key northern pipeline system.
Some who used to target the pipeline -- especially on the link from Baiji north through hot Sunni Arab insurgent territory and to Turkey -- are now paid to protect it, though long-term success is far from guaranteed.
"The export pipeline was under attack constantly last year this time," Oil Minister Hussain Shahristani told United Press International during an interview in his Baghdad office.
"Since then, with the awakening of the tribes in the region, we have recruited some young men from these tribes into our Oil Protection Force, and they've been doing a very good job defending those pipelines," he said. "We have really eliminated all the attacks, and that's why we've been able to export more."
The yearlong effort comes just in time: Iraqi oil exports passed the 2 million barrels per day average last month as oil continued climbing to record prices.
Overall oil production averaged 2.55 million bpd in May, "and we'll keep on adding to it toward the end of the year," Shahristani said. "We are planning to reach 2.8 (million) to 2.9 million bpd."
Iraq's south has more oil reserves, production and exports, and it has been less frequented by attacks. It's humming at 1.92 million bpd in production, he said, while northern flow has increased to 630,000 bpd. Domestic consumption is at "about half a million barrels a day," Shahristani said, with the rest sent to market via pipeline.
Although they hit 450,000 bpd in May, the pipelines from the Kirkuk fields in Iraq's north to the refinery of Baiji and then onto the Turkish port of Ceyhan were offline more often than not since 2003. Saboteurs were either sparking explosions as they tapped into the system or, more often, launching attacks on workers and infrastructure as part of their campaign.
There have been at least 779 attacks on pipelines from March 2003 through May 15, 2008, according to an expert in threats and vulnerabilities to the energy sector worldwide, who spoke to UPI on condition of anonymity.
Refineries have sustained 585 attacks, 569 on tanker trucks, six on maritime tankers and 47 attacks at the oil fields. And 767 workers have been killed, wounded or kidnapped.
More incidents have likely occurred but have gone unreported, the expert said.
This is true for the electricity sector as well, including 1,285 workers who met the same fate as their oil colleagues.
There were 681 attacks on transmission and distribution lines and 113 on power plants and substations.
But last summer the Iraqi and U.S. governments put together a new strategy to repair the lines, create better physical barriers against would-be threats, and use more armed Iraqis to guard their oil and electricity infrastructure.
"They've been threatened, they've been shot at, sent to areas where there's (al-Qaida in Iraq)," said Brig. Carew Wilks, a British official who heads the energy side of Strategic Operations for Multi-National Forces-Iraq. "They've been tremendous."
He also leads the Energy Fusion Cell, a coalition forces mix aimed at addressing Iraqi energy issues, such as working with repair teams of the ministries of Energy and Electricity. Key transmission towers and lines were also brought into a more secured area as well, Wilks said at his office in the fortified Baghdad "Green Zone."
"It was proven to be quite difficult to get the repair team safely for the repair," he said, but repairs were possible because of protection from the Iraqi army, police and the two ministries' security sections.
Shahristani said the Oil Protection Force is being folded into the Oil Police, a new arm of the Ministry of Interior.
"This will entitle them to pension, also if they are killed in the course of duty, and a number of other privileges, including salary raises," said Shahristani. "The salary, once they are properly part of the Oil Police, will be more than half a million dinars ($423) for the low salary as compared to the current lowest level of 250,000 dinars per month, so there is a number of incentives for them to join the Oil Police."
"There is no question that Iraq's ability to resume exports out of the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline owes much to the collaboration of a number of Arab Sunni tribes, which are helping secure the area around Baiji," said Rochdi Younsi, Middle East analyst at the business risk consultancy Eurasia Group.
Attempts in the past haven't always worked; at times tribal leadership accepted payment but did not provide services. Some refuse to cooperate with what they consider occupation forces. Those who do become special targets themselves.
But the Sunni leadership still feels marginalized in the Shiite- and Kurdish-led government and by extension the United States, and continued disenfranchisement may harm collaboration.
"I don't expect a sudden collapse of the U.S.-Sunni collaboration against al-Qaida in the short term, especially since Arab Sunni are genuinely determined to eradicate al-Qaida. Moreover, this is a unique chance for them to acquire weapons and funds," Younsi said. "If the security collaboration were to end, this would have a significant impact on oil exports through the northern pipeline, which is facing other problems pertaining to power generation and outdated infrastructure."