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Iraq: At Oil Plant, Bitterness And Idleness

by Peter S. GoodmanWashington Post
April 30th, 2003

The oil workers stood listlessly in front of the plant, hair blown brittle by a dusty wind, as they shared cigarettes and bitterness for lack of anything else to do. They complained about the looting that has left them without a chair to sit on, let alone a tool to wield. They worried about whether the state oil company can continue to pay them. They wondered when crude might again flow thick through their oil-gas separation plant, bound for the refinery up the road in Basra.

Then, a sparkling GMC Yukon with Kuwaiti license plates pulled up to the gate. Out stepped a round-faced American in blue jeans and a khaki baseball cap bearing the letters "KBR," the name of the Halliburton Co. subsidiary assisting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with the reconstruction of southern Iraq's sprawling and prodigious oil facilities. The KBR technician, Jim Humphries, breezed past the gathering with a perfunctory nod and entered the plant. Minutes later he headed back to his car, refusing a request for a report on what he saw inside.

For many in the crowd, it was more than they could bear. They were already seething at the damage from the widespread looting that accompanied the end of the fighting. Many were frustrated that the United States has yet to put in place a functioning oil ministry, leaving managers at the giant South Oil Co. without the authority to buy new tools, vehicles and machinery. Now, here was another indignity, a moment that typified what many here increasingly see as the imperious manner and overly casual work ethic of the victorious forces overseeing the revival of the oil industry in this war-torn country -- a country that holds the world's second-largest reserves of oil.

"You should cooperate," scolded Mohammed Mohee, an instrument technician, speaking in Arabic, as Humphries shrugged, backed away, then got in his car and drove off. "KBR just comes and gives orders, but they don't do anything," Mohammed continued. "They don't give us anything to work with. This is our oil. This is our city, our company. Our country. We want to clear away the damage and move forward. We have no tools, no instruments. No spare parts. They do nothing. They just look and leave."

Five minutes later, a British desert-camouflage military jeep and a silver sport-utility vehicle pulled up, carrying six soldiers -- some American, some British, all holding assault rifles. Although the crowd outside the plant numbered at least two dozen, the soldiers headed directly for Mohammed. Through an Arabic interpreter, they demanded his name and asked whether he worked there. They left after he showed them his identification card. The crowd jeered.

"They should have given this kind of treatment to the looters," said Abdul Hussain Khudar, chief technician at a storage tank across the road. "The British troops here did absolutely nothing. They watched with their own eyes as the thieves arrived and took away everything, even the corrugated-metal roofs of the storage sheds. We asked them to save the station. They said, 'We're here for fighting. This is not our job.' "

A Halliburton spokeswoman in Kuwait City said that shortly after the exchange with Mohammed, unidentified Iraqis opened fire on a KBR team in front of the gas-oil separation plant. No one was hurt, but the team had to be "escorted out by coalition forces," she said, adding that "KBR will continue its mission, under the Corps' direction, to help the Iraqi people restore their oil production."

Realizing that goal seems a long way off, in view of the conditions at this plant today and the many major logistical decisions that are yet to be made. More than three weeks after the fighting ended in Iraq, the oil industry in the south -- which produces about 60 percent of the country's total output -- remains moribund. Its operations are starved of equipment, shy of labor and confused about who runs what. Many workers are staying at home, frightened by a general state of lawlessness and not needed for work anyway. Everyone wonders who will run the new oil ministry, which has overseen the operations of all five of Iraq's state oil companies and must sign off on major purchases.

Under the direction of the Corps of Engineers and its contractor, KBR, three of 102 production areas in southern Iraq are now yielding oil, together producing 150,000 to 175,000 barrels per day. That is less than half of what the country requires for its basic needs for gasoline, cooking fuel and electricity. Frequent blackouts still afflict nearly every town. Without reliable electricity, most cities have been unable to operate water-purification plants.

In an interview this week, Brig. Gen. Robert Crear, who oversees the Corps' oil reconstruction effort, said that only about 2,000 of South Oil's roughly 13,000 workers had returned to their jobs. But he offered this as a positive sign.

"As time goes by, even more will come," he said. "As security improves, more will come back."

The Basra refinery, which produces diesel for the city's electrical plants, resumed operation this week, and all five of the area's power stations were running, though at half capacity, Crear said. In nine to 12 weeks, he thinks, Iraq would be producing about 800,000 barrels per day -- approximately one-third of its prewar total. He said the Corps' 76 military and civilian workers plus its 246 contractors were working well with the Iraqis.

"We have made considerable progress in terms of coordination and making things work," Crear said.

But the picture that emerged in two days of travel around the oil-production areas of southern Iraq was one of frustration, confusion, and uncertainty about how to proceed amid rampant lawlessness.

As he sat in a bare office with mildew stains on the walls, a phone that does not work on his desk, and a crowded room full of people imploring him for jobs or fuel, the newly named head of South Oil, Jabbar Ali Al-Lua'abi, expressed exasperation with the pace of reconstruction.

"It's very slow," he said. "The main reason is there is no security." Under the terms of Iraq's control by United States and British forces, he cannot dispatch his crews to the field to survey conditions without first gaining security clearance. Much of the terrain is still beset by armed robbers looking for cars and trucks, he said. Jabbar was camped out in a makeshift office because the company's administrative headquarters -- a brick building set amid flowering shrubs and date palms erected by the British half a century ago -- was bombed at the beginning of the war, then mortared relentlessly and finally looted down to the screws.

Today, the building that once held payroll records and salary money was a pile of rubble and swirling documents. An adjacent field was littered with unexploded mortar shells. The computer center next door was bare. Five teenagers scavenged loose wires and fragments of plumbing from a pile of dirt. "They stole everything," said Khadun Khanger, a security guard there. "Even the window guards. Anything they see, they will take."

Like many workers, Khadun missed his regular payday on April 20 because he was at home protecting his family's belongings. With the computer records now gone, the company has no way of telling who got paid and who did not. Khadun and thousands of others have resigned themselves to a permanent loss.

Even those who have been paid were smarting about the devaluation of their take because of a quirk of denomination: Looters made off with bales of Iraqi 10,000 dinar notes held at the central bank, leading many to believe that such bills could soon be banned. As a result, in markets here, such bills are accepted only at a discount of as much as 40 percent. The oil company's savings in the central bank are held in those now-suspect notes, and that is the currency it has been using to pay salaries.

"What is the use of it?" complained one of the workers at the Zubair complex. "How can I live?"

For many Iraqis, the chaos that has followed the end of the war has all but erased the joy they felt at the fall of Saddam Hussein and his regime.

Mustafa A.S. Al-Badar, who heads the southern Iraq operations for the Iraqi Drilling Co., today strolled through the Zubair complex like a migrant, seething that his office had been occupied by British troops who have made it their camp.

"They allow all of the looters to destroy all of our equipment and even now they are sitting in our offices," he said. "They said they brought freedom for us. Where is freedom?"

He walked past two British soldiers standing shirtless in the garden next to his former office, administering a shave in the desert heat.

Then he walked back to a cavernous set of warehouses and workshops, now a graveyard of mangled machinery and strewn parts. A single remaining metal sheet of what had been the roof creaked in the hot wind. "Why this?" Mustafa said. "And when we are we going to build it again? I'd like to ask Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair this. We accept the killing to get rid of Saddam, but this we cannot accept."

Of the company's 26 drilling rigs, none were operational today and most have been damaged, according to chief engineer Taleb Ma'an Weshan.

Only about one-fourth of the South Oil Co.'s vehicles remained; the rest were stolen or destroyed, and many of those are damaged as well, said Safah Hasson Hussain, the company's director of transportation.

For the workers at the gas-oil separation plant, today was another day of torpor. Although it has capacity for 80,000 barrels of crude per day -- burning off the gas and sending the oil toward the refinery -- it was running at about one-eighth of that, the workers said. Of the 200 people who work at the plant, perhaps 30 were here this day.

"We have no jobs," complained Nadam Hussain Ali, chief mechanical officer at the facility. "Now we come, we register, we turn the station on and turn it off. Mostly, we stand around."

Much of the bitterness was directed at KBR and the growing view that the company is slowing down progress. "We can do our jobs; we don't need anybody to help us," said Hadi Sultan, a chief technical officer at the plant. "All we need is the tools."

At a nearby residential complex where workers live in crumbling brick houses built in the 1950s, Kadhen Sae'ed Kailan, a safety inspector with Iraqi Drilling, was again staying home for lack of any work to inspect. He complained that KBR has yet to replace his stolen and destroyed equipment, and he smirked at what he said was the one tangible piece of evidence of KBR's progress: the new laminated identification cards they have been furnishing to oil workers, complete with photo and the approval of a now essentially defunct "Ministry of Oil."

"They do nothing," Kadhen said. "During a month, they do nothing. Just changing this. This is a joke."




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