When I wrote my column on the looting of Baiji refinery, I was careful to mention only what I can refer to other observers, whether written or verbal. I did not mention a lot of what I was told or thought may be happening for the lack of corroboration.
People called me on reading my column to confirm they even have photographs of the looted materials being sold in certain locations in Baghdad. But they asked me not to publish anything in case it can be traced back to them. I was hoping the Ministry of Oil’s spokesman would come out to rubbish my claims and declare that the Ministry is intent on safeguarding the refinery and its materials, and considering options to repair the plant or some of its production lines.
None of that happened and the Ministry’s silence gradually convinced me to think of a more sinister scenario. Either the Ministry is too weak to stand up to the militias or it has deliberately ignored the looting to make any future repair impractical.
My fears are now confirmed. The Iraq Oil Report (IOR) published a long and detailed article on January 28 under the title “Once fixable Baiji refinery plundered beyond repair”.
The report is so extensive and based on many interviews, in and out of Iraq, of eyewitnesses, security officials in Baghdad and Salahaddin province, some officers of the militias, unidentified officials at the Ministry of Oil, refinery engineers and former staff.
The report confirmed all of what I said with respect to the first inspection in October and the subsequent attempt to inspect, which the militias prevented. The first inspection report has been seen by IOR “which catalogues significant damage, but does not report missing any major pieces of equipment that would be necessary for a partial restart”.
The report goes on to say about the second attempt to visit the refinery and leading to “Two people who were in the convoy said Hashid fighters fired their weapons into the air to force them to turn around”. And “shooting occurred when the delegation arrived, because the refinery is still in the custody of militias”, according to a senior Oil Ministry official. A Hashid officer confirmed that “nobody, whoever they are, is allowed into the refinery”.
A staff page on Facebook tried to dispel the rumour that the chairman of the Salahaddin Province’s local government said the refinery would be closed indefinitely. It said that the refinery would be closed to prevent tampering and theft until it is controlled by the police.
But the IOR said: “Some refinery personnel and security officials claimed the federal government was content to see the facility dismantled” because they do not want to invest in vital infrastructure located in certain demographic areas. I hope this is not true, but the change of location of the Midland refinery to the Karbala site for similar reasons comes to mind and it can be repeated here.
The former director-general of the refinery Ali Obaidi said Daesh “bombing and the fighting against them caused the destruction of some operational plants, equipment and buildings — but there were no traces of large-scale theft”.
There is, according to IOR, an auction going on in the refinery for the “spoil of war” including a large specialised crane with “Businessmen from Baghdad and Iran allowed on the site to bid on equipment ranging from mobile generators to large fixed parts of the refinery that had to be disassembled by engineers”.
The Iranian element here is very important and it was reported to me that an Iranian flag was even hoisted at the refinery and some claims of large equipment being dismantled and shipped to Iran remains a possibility.
The IOR says, “A senior official in the Salahaddin provincial government said he had made efforts to stop the looting by raising the issue with Hashid, the Ministry, and Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi” and “They ignored our calls”.
The presence of Iranians to coordinate militia activities and looting on site is confirmed by many eyewitnesses, with one referring to “the important things, the large refinery equipment, were sold to Iranians”.
In a recent meeting in Istanbul of the Iraqi Forum for Intellectuals and Academics, I said that the replacement value of the refinery is $12 billion (Dh44 billion). And considering Iraq’s political and financial situation, it is incumbent on the government to come out clean and stop the destruction of the refinery and return stolen items.
The government, especially the Ministry of Oil, must demonstrate responsibility and not force people to choose between the militias and Daesh.
The writer is former head of the Energy Studies Department at the Opec Secretariat in Vienna.