I wanted to write a strictly technical column about what is new in the refining industry this week. But the news from Iraq compels me to write something else.

It seems that oil is not just a factor in international politics and conflicts but also in the internal politics and differences in Iraq. In recent weeks questions, about oil have moved from verbal conflicts to very violent ones indeed.

We all know by now the battles that raged in and around Baiji refinery, where good people wanted the place to be neutralised for the benefit of all Iraqis. Yet the result is ugly, with at least three fires erupting in the refinery and unknown damages being suffered. More importantly, the housing estate was so severely targeted by helicopters as to render it empty of its occupants, who had to flee for their safety.

A few days ago, the Qaiyara refinery, situated 80 kilometres south of Mosul, was targeted by an aircraft, which resulted in at least two process units and the control room getting severely damaged and a tank catching fire. The same aircraft also bombed the municipality building. It was miraculous no casualties were reported.

The statement by the “anti-terror authority in coordination with the air force” said that 30 road tankers smuggling crude oil were destroyed. The question is, why target the process units and the municipality? Is it possible that the government is intent on destroying the oil infrastructure, especially as a day earlier a major storage depot south of Mosul was also bombed in addition to an earlier bombing of a major electrical substation?

Asphalt plant

The Qaiyara refinery is a special asphalt plant using the very heavy (16 API, 8 per cent S) crude from the field by the same name. It was built in 1957 for a capacity of 40,000 tonnes a year of asphalt but was expanded three times in the 1970s by the addition of three 120,000 tonnes a year units.

The other products have small capacities and are low in quality and used mainly for refinery fuel. Only naphtha was partially treated for export due to its high sulpher and hydrogen sulphide content or sent to a burning pit.

This is not the first time the Qaiyara refinery has been visited by bombers. It was severely damaged during the Iraq–Iran war towards the end of 1980 and it took almost three months to repair at a time when asphalt demand was high.

I have to say that I was in doubt about smuggling Qaiyara crude oil due to its high content of hydrogen sulphide, and we even failed to load its naphtha before treating. But it seems that the smugglers are better equipped than us or more risk taking!

In any case, I still wonder who’s interested in this very heavy and high in sulpher crude oil. Or the receivers are mixing it with lighter and better quality crude.

The planners of this attack are probably unconcerned about the safety of the population around the refinery and oil field which are close to the town. Any major gas leak may have a devastating impact on the population.

There is no denying that smuggling of crude oil is going on a larger scale, but not from Qaiyara. The government knows very well where the “bourse” selling smuggled crude oil to the Kurdish region is, but so far it has shunned any action.

If the Iraqi government is so concerned about oil smuggling, it should have defended the Kirkuk and Byhassan oil fields where the Peshmerga is now in full control, in addition to the Kirkuk refinery and North Gas processing plant.

The Kurdish regional government now has the potential to export — or “smuggle” — more than half a million barrels a day from these fields faced only with verbal objections from the government in Baghdad who have appealed to the “wise men of the Kurds” to understand the situation and to reverse these actions.

We shall see what these wise men will do when their government is saying that Kirkuk is now part of Kurdistan and there is no way of reversing that.

The use of aircraft against plants and civilians is now well documented. A few days ago, 20 youngsters on a river beach in Mosul were killed in one raid and many more in other towns. This caused outrage among the population to the extent that some parties in the government of ‘National Alliance’ are now calling for a committee to review targets and the necessity of conducting air raids in order not to “widen the gap between the people and its armed forces”.

We used to say that oil is a unifying factor in Iraq but I now wonder if that is so.

— The writer is former head of the Energy Studies Department at the Opec Secretariat in Vienna.