Tough task to restart oil facility in Kirkuk

Huge complex, in ruins, is vital to postwar goals

War In Iraq

April 13, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KIRKUK, Iraq -- Iraq's state-owned Northern Oil Corporation once pumped 500,000 barrels of oil, the lifeblood of this region's economy, out of fields here every day.

Yesterday, the company was in cardiac arrest.

Top-level managers, many of them members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, had vanished. Windows in the corporate headquarters building were smashed. Other offices and shops were looted and burned. The oil wells and refinery were shut down, cutting the flow of fuel to the power plant that supplies electricity to this city of 800,000.

And nobody seemed to know when the sprawling complex will start producing oil and gas again.

Seizure of this refinery complex and the Baba Gurgur oil field west of Kirkuk were key strategic objectives of the U.S. military. Both facilities were occupied without resistance.

But getting Northern Oil running again could prove much harder.

Success here is critical. Kirkuk, one of Iraq's richest regions, might be the friendliest city in Iraq for U.S. forces, who are greeted with broad smiles, thumbs up and heartfelt thanks.

If the American government can't stabilize Kirkuk, how can it succeed elsewhere?

A television station controlled by the Kurds of northern Iraq, whose troops liberated Kirkuk on Thursday, urged residents to return to their jobs. But the thousands of Northern Oil employees found it impossible to comply.

All the company's shuttle buses were stolen. Offices were ransacked and burned. And the road leading to the refinery was strung with barbed wire by American soldiers, who turned everyone away, employees or not.

Not even relatives of the 250 families who live on the refinery grounds could get in.

One man said his daughter and her year-old baby were cut off in their home with no running water and limited food, and pleaded with the soldiers to give her a packet of medicine.

Others just wanted to know why they couldn't go to work.

Faced with running an oil company, America's professional warriors sounded overwhelmed.

"People destroyed this plant," one Special Forces officer, who declined to give his name, told the crowd. "We can't let you through. We're trying to make sure this facility doesn't get anymore burned or destroyed than it is, to the point where it's not effective. The reason we're doing this is to ensure the people of Kirkuk and the people of Iraq have some place to work."

More than 100 other Northern Oil workers gathered at the company's abandoned offices closer to the city.

Their feet crunching on bits of glass, kicking through drifts of scattered documents, they hunted for their personnel files, so they could prove they worked there.

Workers said they deliberately shut down the oil pumps and refinery Thursday morning, as U.S.-led Kurdish pesh merga forces converged on the city.

They feared that exploding shells would start fires and that those fires might cause gushing fuel to explode.

But halting production cut the flow of natural gas to the turbines that provide electricity. When the gas in the pipeline ran out early Friday, Kirkuk's refrigerators, phones, municipal water, gas pumps and traffic lights shut down at once.

Later, apparently, the Americans had trouble turning the power back on. Mullah Abdullah, a repairman for the refinery's electric power plant, said he was worried about reports of vandalism. Why hadn't the Americans called?

As he spoke, gunfire suddenly broke out a few blocks away. It wasn't clear who was shooting at what, or whom.

"You hear that?" one man asked. "When will it be under control?"

Many plant workers are concerned about security in Kirkuk.

"All of us wonder and ask when this disaster will be finished," said Alladin Salih, a petroleum engineer. "The day that the Kurdish army came here, there was electric power, and everything ran normally. After they came, they burned everything. Why, I don't know."

Kirkuk has not dissolved in anarchy and bloodshed, as the northern city of Mosul did Friday and yesterday. Pesh merga guerrillas, blamed by many here for most of the looting and thefts, withdrew yesterday, returning to their homes in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

Perhaps 1,000 American troops -- a mix of Special Forces and paratroopers with the 173rd Airborne Brigade -- began high-profile patrols here yesterday, in an apparent effort to rally the spirits of Kirkuk's residents and discourage further banditry.

But, by some estimates, only a few thousand American troops are in all of northern Iraq, together with a handful of tanks. Many of those soldiers seem to be headed south, apparently for a showdown with Iraqi troops who have fled to Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. It's the last major city to resist the U.S.-led advance.

"In Kirkuk, you will need more than 2,000 troops," said one Iraqi man, who reported that armed gangs had raided a series of homes Friday night, stealing jewelry, cash and cars.

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