By Ulf Laessing and Khalid al-Ansary
BAGHDAD, Aug 24 (Reuters) - When Major General Hamid
Ibrahim starts listing the challenges and shortcomings of his
Iraqi oil protection police, he doesn't stop for over an hour.
Ibrahim's force will be in the spotlight when the U.S.
military cuts its numbers to 50,000 on Aug. 31 and switches from
a combat to advisory role.
It has already gone on alert after receiving intelligence
over the weekend that al Qaeda planned to attack oil facilities.
Baghdad has signed multi-billion deals with oil firms to
boost output capacity to 12 million barrels a day in seven
years, rivalling top oil exporter Saudi Arabia. That could give
Iraq the money it needs to rebuild after decades of war,
sanctions and economic degradation.
But everything depends on whether the OPEC member can secure
its vital oilfields, refineries and other infrastructure against
insurgents and militia that have plagued the country since the
U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Years of training have been undertaken and piles of
equipment bought since Iraqi officials first took responsibility
for securing the country's oil facilities in 2005, but Ibrahim
still has a long list of needs -- enough policemen for a start.
"We are supposed to be 41,000 policemen but are short 10,000
men," said Ibrahim, sitting in his office in the police
headquarters next to the Oil Ministry in Baghdad, answering
calls virtually non-stop on his mobile phone or office line.
To fill the gap, the oil police hire civilian guards, who
get just two weeks of training, or turn to local tribesmen,
hoping that by giving them jobs they won't attack pipelines. The
army and regular police also help out.
Four regiments of police help protect the
Iraq-Turkey pipeline but that is not nearly enough.
The energy corridor through which a quarter of Iraq's crude
exports is pumped to tankers in the Turkish port of Ceyhan is
regularly hit by sabotage and maintenance problems. Twice in the
last couple of months it has been bombed by rebels from Turkey's
outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
The police is also short of reconnaissance planes to monitor
the most important sites and pipeline routes and, despite having
received some 600 cars from U.S. forces, lacks vehicles such as
tanks, jeeps and ambulances. Road-building vehicles are needed
to link often remote oil facilities.
"When the Americans were in charge we used to have a weekly
reconnaissance flight. Now because we're short of planes, there
is a huge decline," Ibrahim said.
The police also need 100 tanker trucks to carry water to
outposts so they can deploy more permanent staff at key sites.
Ibrahim says there is an "80 percent shortage" of such trucks.
There is little data on attacks on pipelines or other oil
facilities in Iraq but Ibrahim said there had been an 80 percent
drop in incidents from the peak of sectarian warfare in 2006-07.
Fixing damage still costs half a billion dollars a year, he
said, adding that Iraq was in talks with German and Chinese
firms to buy surveillance cameras and other high-tech equipment.
Overall violence in Iraq has fallen sharply, and the Shi'ite
south where most of Iraq's current oil production comes from is
relatively peaceful, but attacks continue.
Militants fired mortars in late July near the southern
Halfaya oilfield, with one round landing 200 meters from an
active oil well, the U.S. army said. Last December, a small unit
of Iranian troops briefly occupied a neglected oil well in land
that Iraq says lies within its borders.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki passed warnings to security
officials in a meeting on Sunday that al Qaeda planned attacks
on pipelines as the U.S. troops end combat missions, and ordered
the oil police to go on high alert.
"We always get this sort of information, especially in the
western part (of the country)," Ibrahim said in a follow-up
interview on Monday. "But as this is new information, and came
from responsible parties, we have to take precautions."
Like other Iraqi security forces, the oil police have paid a
heavy price in lives since the 2003 invasion.
On the first floor of their headquarters hangs a dusty
plaque showing pictures of around 90 staff killed on duty -- but
it only goes up to 2005 because there is no space for the rest.
"We have more than 300 martyrs (dead) from the oil police,"
MORE TRAINING NEEDED
U.S. officials say the Iraqi oil security forces are up to
the task but further improvement is needed.
"One of the things that we need to do is to increase the
capabilities of the oil police to free the Iraqi army from this
task," Lieutenant General Michael Barbero, NATO's Iraq training
commander, told reporters.
Under a NATO plan, French and Italian specialists will
conduct courses in October to teach senior oil police officers
how to train their staff, Ibrahim said.
"We have four training centres in which to develop the work
of oil police and their fighting capabilities," he said.
The Iraqi navy is taking over responsibility for protecting
Iraq's crucial oil export terminals in the south. But like other
Iraqi security forces, it has had to be rebuilt from scratch
since the invasion and only recently received its first
Italian-made patrol boats.
As if the task of protecting refineries and oilfields from
bombs was not demanding enough, the oil police also have to deal
with widespread theft and smuggling of crude. The Baiji
refinery, for instance, was controlled by al Qaeda militants for
a long time, who used it to finance the insurgency.
Ibrahim showed a video of a valve attached by smugglers to a
pipeline in southeastern Baghdad.
"This was the fifth time we foiled such an attempt on this
pipeline in 2010," he said, pointing to the TV screen.
(Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal; Writing by Ulf
Laessing; Editing by Serena Chaudhry and Noah Barkin)