A crude threat

April 06, 2004|By Gal Luft

THE CLAIM that Iraq might be able to double its oil production and pay for its own reconstruction once Saddam Hussein was removed from power seems surreal a year later.

An average of one to two sabotage attacks a week against Iraq's oil pipelines has crippled the country's oil industry, hindering its ability to export crude. As a result, Iraq's exports hardly exceed half of its prewar production capacity, and Iraqis, sitting on the world's second-largest reserves, often find themselves standing in gas lines longer than those Americans faced in the worst days of the 1973 oil embargo. Exports are down from 2.5 million barrels a day before the war to 1.5 million barrels a day now.

The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority has made protecting the pipelines and restoring Iraq's oil industry a top priority. Nearly 14,000 security guards have been deployed along the pipelines and in critical installations, using surveillance equipment and electronic motion detectors. There has also been a sixfold increase in the number of mobile security patrols.

But the fight against pipeline sabotage is nowhere near its end. In fact, in some areas it is intensifying. After more than 100 pipeline attacks in northern Iraq, terrorists last month began hitting the pipelines in the south near Basra.

The campaign against Iraq's oil infrastructure is intended to batter the country's economy and undermine its future political stability. It aims to increase the cost of war for the American taxpayer and thus weaken U.S. resolve to stay in Iraq. But the real significance of the pipeline war extends far beyond Iraq.

Moving 40 percent of the world's oil across some of the world's most volatile regions, pipelines are a real prize for terrorists. Because of their length, pipelines are very vulnerable to attack and are very easily sabotaged. A simple explosive device can put a critical section of pipeline out of operation for weeks. Beyond Iraq, there have been numerous pipeline attacks in places such as Nigeria, Colombia, Chechnya, India and Pakistan, but these have always been considered part of the industry risk.

Iraq seems to have changed that. It demonstrates that pipeline attacks are no longer a tactic but part of a sustained, orchestrated effort that can deliver a significant strategic gain. By attacking the country's energy infrastructure, terrorists can deny the nation its lifeblood and livelihood, creating resentment among the people toward the government - or in Iraq's case, the occupier - for its failure to address the problem. They can also cause significant damage to the global oil market.

Next in line to emulate the insurgents in Iraq could well be Islamist terrorist groups operating in Central Asia, among them Chechen separatists and the Islamic Party of Liberation, a group that seeks to carry out a holy war against the West and is a suspect in the recent wave of deadly attacks in Uzbekistan.

China also is vulnerable to terrorist strikes at oil. To satisfy its growing energy needs, China has decided to run pipelines connecting the northwest district of Xinjiang with neighboring Kazakstan. This means China's oil will be at the mercy of increasingly hostile Muslim Uighur minorities trying to break away from the central regime in Beijing.

Most disturbing is the possibility that the strategy of pipeline sabotage would cross the border from Iraq to neighboring Saudi Arabia, home to one-fourth of the world's oil. Over 10,000 miles of pipeline crisscross Saudi Arabia, mostly above ground. This oil web is more than double the size of Iraq's.

Were concerted pipeline attacks to spread to Saudi Arabia, repeatedly interrupting the Saudi oil supply, the implications for the global economy could be profound.

Terrorists are known to emulate successful tactics, and success in keeping Iraq's oil off-line would encourage other groups sitting along highways of black gold throughout the Muslim world to do the same. Oil is, in the words of al-Qaida, "the provision line and the feeding artery of the life of the crusader nation." With oil prices already at a historic high, there is little room for further disruptions in this market.

This is precisely why the Coalition Provisional Authority and Iraq's newly established security services must win the pipeline war there. Failure to do so could entice terrorist organizations to launch a whole new phase in the war on terror, one in which popping pipelines in the desert might reverberate across the world's trading floors.

Gal Luft is executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security and publisher of the online publication Energy Security. He is based in Rockville.

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