Saboteurs hit Iraq's northern oil pipeline, halting exports

Eric Watkins
OGJ Oil Diplomacy Editor

LOS ANGELES, Apr. 23 -- Iraqi oil exports have been cut due to sabotage along the northern pipeline system, according to officials who say repairs could take up to a week. The 970-km line transports crude oil from the country’s Kirkuk fields to Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

“The export pipeline is damaged and oil flow to the Turkish export terminal [at] Ceyhan has been halted,” said one Iraqi official. Another said oil flow had stopped due to an explosion in Al-Hadhar, 80 km south of Mosul.

“We are sure now that it was sabotage, not a technical failure…. The time frame to fix the pipeline and resume pumping oil is about a week,” said one Iraqi oil official, who added, “The pipeline was attacked.”

As a result, officials halted loadings of oil at Ceyhan, where storage was variously reported to be down to 300,000-650,000 bbl.

The line carried 450,000 b/d in this year’s first quarter, just under 25% of Iraq's 2 million b/d of exports. The rest of Iraq’s oil exports exit the country via the southern terminal at Basra on the Persian Gulf.

In March, Iraq's oil exports fell to 1.79 million b/d from 2.083 million b/d in February, including an average of 1.380 million b/d from Basra and 410,000 b/d from the northern oil fields around Kirkuk.

While rebels from Turkey’s outlawed Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK) have been responsible for previous attacks on the Turkish section of the pipeline, Iraqi police believe Sunni militants were responsible for this week’s attack, aiming to weaken the Shi'a-led government in Baghdad.

The Baghdad government relies almost exclusively on its oil export revenues to run its budget and fund the postwar reconstruction effort.

Some reports suggested, however, that al-Qaeda militants may have been responsible for the attack, aiming to avenge the Apr. 20 killing of Ahmed al-Obeidi, also known as Abu Suheib, who was responsible for planning terrorist attacks in northern Iraq.

Military officials said al-Obeidi was killed in a joint US-Iraqi operation, becoming the third senior al-Qaeda commander killed since Apr. 18 by Iraqi and US forces. Observers underlined the fact that Al-Hadhar, location of this week’s bombing, was the base for al-Obeidi’s operations.

Regardless of the perpetrator, analyst BMI said, “The energy industry and the Kurdish regional government are both hopeful that this most recent pipeline attack proves to be a blip in the current trend rather than the start of a new upsurge in violence.”

Insurgents operating in Iraq following the US-led invasion in March 2003 carried out an estimated 500 attacks against the country’s infrastructure, especially targeting the northern oil export pipelines in an effort to weaken the postwar government.

Attacks against Iraq’s oil infrastructure have fallen off since 2007 when the government began to implement security measures.

Still, in late 2007, Iraq's 110,000-b/d Doura refinery burst into flames after being hit by a Katyusha rocket, starting a fire that sent a large plume of black smoke into the sky (OGJ Online, Dec. 11, 2007).

Contact Eric Watkins at hippalus@yahoo.com.

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