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Some oil companies are disregarding Iraq’s assurances of tight security in the midst of a strong Sunni Muslim insurgency that is spreading throughout the country and withdrawing foreign staff from southern Iraq, where the population is heavily Shia Muslim.
These southern regions produce about 90 percent of Iraq’s oil, and the Shia-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says they are safe from attacks by the fighters from the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has steadily advanced southward in recent days. The government says 100,000 well-armed police have been assigned to protect these facilities and are on high alert.
Nevertheless, oil companies suspect their foreign workers might be prime targets for ISIS. Bob Dudley, chief executive of Britain’s BP, told reporters in Moscow on June 17, “Non-essential production people have left but operations continue.” BP, which operates the Rumalia oil field, is one of the leading foreign oil investors in Iraq.
Exxon Mobil, the U.S. oil giant, is also reportedly reducing staff at West Qurna 1, another key southern field.
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Russian energy companies are so far keeping their foreign workers in Iraq. Vadim Yakovlev, the first deputy chief of Gazprom Neft, said that “everything is going according to plan for now” at the Badra field east of Baghdad, but added “We are working on plan B, including evacuation operations.”
China, Iraq’s largest oil customer, has recommended that its citizens stay away from Iraq.
Those fears were realized June 18, when ISIS fighters stormed and took control of Iraq’s largest oil refinery outside the town of Baiji, 130 miles north of Baghdad, according to witnesses. The facility had been defended by about 300 untested soldiers.
The capture of Baiji is a major coup for ISIS – also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. It denies the Iraqi government of Baiji’s generous oil revenues while further enriching ISIS. The militant group did much the same in eastern Syria, capturing oil fields in the region and selling the oil to regional buyers.
By Andy Tully
Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com