The epic tale of an oil smuggling gang in Kirkuk is nearly two years old now. The gang was making an estimated US$60,000 a day from their activities. And they were caught in the act over 24 months ago – yet they are, allegedly, all still free. As one member of the security forces says: “no one can arrest them”.
The story is not an uncommon one in Iraq, where oil smuggling has a long history and where authorities appear loathe to take responsibility for policing this particular crime. Most tales of oil smugglers see various authorities – from the judiciary to the police to the state to the local oil companies themselves – saying it’s the other group’s responsibility to secure the oil.
Oil smuggling became a growth industry when former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein organized gangs to start smuggling oil to get around international sanctions against Iraq. Tankers would siphon oil from various sources and either sell them on the home market or on the black market in nearby nations; demand was there for oil to run home generators, for example, needed because of electricity cuts. And despite the best efforts to halt the practice, it has continued in various forms to this day.
An anonymous source tells NIQASH that this particular instance of oil smuggling began when Iraq’s own North Oil Company decided to build a pipeline from the Jabal Bur oil processing station to a nearby area, Kiwan, where the pipe could then connect to a larger network.
Local contractors were signed on to build the pipeline and while they were building it, they decided to make a hole in the pipe in order to siphon off oil and smuggle it away in waiting trucks or ships. As the oil passed through the Rahimawa quarter in Kirkuk the contractors added a special pipe of their own to siphon oil off. To cover up their activities, they built a huge auto garage.
Experts in the field say that putting a hole in an oil pipeline is far from a simple task and they believe that the smugglers must have had to bring in experts from outside of the province to do this.
“A person with no experience in piercing an oil pipeline cannot extract oil from it,” local oil and gas consultant, Shlair Hamid, told NIQASH.
“Anyone who wants to pierce a pipeline also needs to have special equipment to do that. Otherwise there could be a fire. All the evidence suggests that someone from outside Iraq was brought here to do this job.”
After holing the pipeline, they made a secret deal with one of North Oil’s engineers. In return for a percentage of the profits, the engineer agreed to record less oil flowing through the pipeline than there actually was. NIQASH’s source says that the oil smugglers were selling around US$60,000 worth of oil every day, of which the duplicitous engineer was getting about US$10,000.
The oil smuggling circuit was only uncovered after the engineer began to ask for more money. After the other gang members refused him, he went to the police. This resulted in a committee of investigators from Baghdad travelling to Kirkuk to look into the accusations. In the end, local police were able to arrest one of the pipeline contractors involved. However political pressure and bribes saw the contractor released. Now, according to NIQASH’s source, the whole oil smuggling gang remains at liberty.
However Kirkuk authorities deny this version of events. “This is not the first time that gangs have stolen Kirkuk’s oil,” the head of Kirkuk’s local council, Hassan Turan, says. “There are well organized groups stealing the oil and it is the duty of North Oil Company to protect their oil pipelines against theft.”
Turan also said that several of the oil smugglers involved have been arrested and that local courts are now handling the case.
However, strangely, Turan’s statement contradicts those from other authorities. “We received information that a gang had made a hole in the pipeline in Rahimawa and was stealing oil from this hole,” Ghalib Taha, one of the heads of the Rahimawa police station, says. “By the time the police had arrived at the garage the gang members had gone. We arrested the garage guard but we realised him because he didn’t know anything about the pipeline.”
Taha says that, while the police and even the citizens of Kirkuk, knew about the smugglers, the local council seemed reluctant to move against them. And because of this, Taha says, “we are not entitled to take any measures.”
Meanwhile the deputy chairperson of the Kirkuk council had an explanation for this. “The Ministry of Oil notified us in writing that we should not interfere in the work of oil institutions and that we should not interfere in any related issue or case,” Ribwar al-Talabani told NIQASH.
“This is why we didn’t conduct any investigations into this matter.”
Al-Talabani also brought up the dubious history of oil smuggling in Iraq. “In the past, each hole made in a pipeline was dedicated to a tribal leader - or to a political party,” he explains. “Everywhere else in the world, oil pipelines are well protected. But in Iraq, it’s a mess and nobody knows who exactly is stealing the oil.”
This has been well documented by many sources. Tribal leaders have been seen to obstruct measures to protect the oil pipelines and one tribe, contracted to provide security for the oil pipelines, even used that contract to cover up their smuggling activities. As a result, nobody seems particularly keen to do anything about bringing smugglers to justice.
Article 111 of the Iraqi Constitution states that “oil and gas are owned by all the people of Iraq in all the regions and governorates” and one might assume that it was the responsibility of each provincial authority to protect the resources within their area.
But, as al-Talabani says, “we haven’t received any instructions from the central government to investigate such cases. That’s why oil smuggling has become commonplace in almost all oil producing provinces.”
Meanwhile officials from the North Oil Company, a state-run company within Iraq’s Ministry of Oil, deny the whole story. “I have never heard about this gang you’re talking about,” Hamid al-Saedi, the general manager of North Oil, told NIQASH in a brief statement.
All of which makes it difficult to know what is really going on with the oil smuggling gangs in Kirkuk. Then again this seems fairly typical for the oil smuggling in Iraq: there’s simply too much money involved for it to be easily eradicated.
Nonetheless Iraqi officials continue to insist it must be. Finally, the governor of Kirkuk, Najm al-Din Karim, told NIQASH that all local security apparatuses must intensify their efforts to police oil smuggling. “Anyone considering oil smuggling in Kirkuk will be punished,” Karim stated firmly.