IRBIL, Iraq March 28 —
U.S. and British forces moved quickly to secure Iraq's southern
oil fields, home to much of the country's petroleum wealth. But the
heartland of Iraq's oil industry lies much farther north, near the
city of Kirkuk, where an earlier generation of Westerners scrambled
for oil-drilling rights amid the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.
This week's arrival near Kirkuk of 1,200 American soldiers
brought renewed attention to a province whose crude deposits make it
an economic prize and a faultline for potential conflict between
Kurds, Iraqi Arabs and Turks.
After landing in the area Wednesday, the Americans grabbed a
strategic air base and began plotting how to cross 80 miles, through
thousands of Iraqi troops, to seize valuable northern oil
Iraq has 112 billion barrels in total proven crude reserves, many
of them lying north of Kirkuk toward neighboring Mosul.
The biggest northern oil field contains an estimated 7 billion
barrels of recoverable crude. That puts it in the same league as
Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, during its heyday in the 1970s, said Leo
Drollas of the London-based Center for Global Energy Studies.
Kirkuk, about 150 miles north of Baghdad, is outside the Kurdish
enclave in northern Iraq. But it was long a solidly Kurdish city,
and Kurds still speak of it with reverence.
"Kirkuk is Kurdish and will forever be Kurdish," said Hoshiar
Zebari, a top member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of the
two main Kurdish factions operating under Western protection in the
In recent years, the Iraqi government has expelled thousands of
Kurds from the Kirkuk area and settled Arabs in their place. As many
as 120,000 Kurds have been forced from their homes since 1991, Human
Rights Watch reported last week.
Under its oil-for-food program, the United Nations earmarked 13
percent of Iraq's oil revenues for the country's Kurds. But some
Kurds have said they want more. In October, the top Iraqi Kurdish
military commander, Hamid Efendi, said his forces would try to
capture the oil fields around Kirkuk if the United States attacked
Such bellicose language has subsided somewhat since the war
began. Yet maps in political and military offices in Irbil, the
administrative capital of the Kurdish zone, always include Kirkuk
and Mosul within the borders of an Iraqi "Kurdistan." A top Kurdish
military commander, Feridoun Janrowey, oversees the "Suleymaniah and
Kirkuk" administrative district, and Iraqi Kurds already have
selected a mayor for Kirkuk.
Americans worry that a Kurdish thrust toward Kirkuk could prompt
Turkey to invade northern Iraq. Ankara fears that if Iraqi Kurds
overrun key oil fields and create a rich, independent homeland, they
could inspire revolt among Turkey's own minority Kurds.
The U.S. troops airlifted into this ethnic and political cauldron
are too few to mount a serious offensive against the Iraqis.
Instead, their role is more likely to be that of a glorified police
force to keep the Kurds at bay, analysts say.
The region's main object of desire, the oil field at Kirkuk,
began flowing crude in 1927. British oil giant BP was an original
partner in the Turkish Petroleum Co., the consortium exploring in
"On Oct. 15, 1927, the drill struck oil, which flowed with such
force that it was uncontrollable for several days. The discovery of
the Kirkuk field transformed Iraq from a country of high oil promise
to one of the most valuable concessionary areas in the world," wrote
BP company historian R.W. Ferrier.
Together with its main partners Royal Dutch/Shell and the
precursor of France's Total BP tried at first to bar American
competitors from Iraq. However, the U.S. State Department demanded
and finally secured a share in the consortium for Exxon Mobil and
several other American firms.
Renamed the Iraq Petroleum Co., the venture pressured the Iraqi
government into accepting royalties instead of a stake in the
business. Iraqi cabinet ministers protested, with some resigning and
even threatening suicide over the issue.
The final agreement served as a model for other joint oil
ventures to follow in the Middle East. But for the Iraqis, it caused
decades of resentment that boiled over when Baghdad nationalized the
consortium in 1972.
Estimates of Kirkuk's daily production capacity range from
500,000 to 900,000 barrels. Until the war, much of Kirkuk's crude
flowed under U.N. supervision through a pipeline to the
Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, Turkey. The pipeline was operating
Friday, albeit at a reduced rate, port sources at Ceyhan said.
Like Iraq's other oil fields, including newer ones in the south,
Kirkuk has suffered from a shortage of investment during 12 years of
U.N. economic sanctions. But it remains a valuable prize.
"It's not just an economic question," Kurdistan Democratic Party
leader Massoud Barzani said this month. "Kirkuk is a symbolic city
of unity. ... Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen live there. And the oil
should be equally distributed."
AP Business Writer Bruce Stanley contributed to this report from
|A British soldier from 29
Commando Regiment Royal Artillery stands on sentry duty as a
Scimitar tank from the Queens Dragoon Guards passes by and an
oil fire burns on the horizon in southern Iraq, Friday, March
28, 2003. (AP Photo/Stephen Hird,
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