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Iraq’s Prized Oil Patch in Limbo

May 22, 2003

NORTH RUMEILAH, Iraq (AP) _ U.S. and British invaders swept into southern Iraq like the dust devils of swirling sand that whip across the region’s oil fields, capturing pipelines, oil wells and pumping stations.

Crude production collapsed, and suddenly, the Iraqis of Rumeilah found themselves in limbo, their government gone and their livelihoods vanished or under threat.

Today, one of the country’s two prize oil patches is a ghostly desert whose inhabitants, from camel herders to security guards, scratch a living amid ransacked and abandoned oil facilities. All the while, foreign and Iraqi specialists are struggling to restore oil production _ and with it some cause for hope and security.

Adel Fadel, 24, guards a drilling rig that was abandoned by its Romanian crew in the Rumeilah South oil field just days before the war. The derrick and its base camp of blue and yellow buildings look new from a distance. Up close, the rig towers above the wreckage of gutted trailers and toppled light poles. Its generators and pumps are missing.

Looters attacked the rig after Fadel and his two partners went home for their own safety during the allied invasion. Would-be thieves continue to arrive almost daily, even with the guards back on the job.

Typically, they drive up in stolen government cars or trucks and never seem to have weapons.

``They’ll say, ’Let me take something, and you can benefit,‴ Fadel said. ``One man offered me money for a cable. I said, ’No, I can’t sell it.‴

After a courteous conversation, most looters just leave. Some are more persistent, but eventually all depart empty-handed, the guards said.

The rig’s Romanian owner continues to pay Fadel, fortifying his resolve to ward off intruders.

At a nearby facility for separating crude from natural gas, a team of Indian technicians marvels at the time capsule of Iraqi equipment they’re being paid to inspect and repair. Most of the gear is British-made and dates from around 1965.

``The condition is the worst,″ said Rengaswamy Ganesan, 50, a quality control specialist for a Kuwaiti subcontracting firm.

Ganesan said Iraqi oil workers claimed to have operated the gas-oil separation plant until the war began in March, but he shook his head in disbelief. If that were true, he said, the Iraqis were doing so without the aid of pressure control devices or even fire alarms.

``These people were operating at very great personal danger,″ he said.

Ganesan’s crew tried earlier to restart a gas turbine at a similar plant a few miles to the north. Pressure built up because of a blocked air intake, and the turbine exploded.

Until the fighting halted oil production, Iraq pumped 1.1 million barrels a day _ almost half of the country’s total output _ from the Rumeilah fields alone. The Rumeilah South field is recovering slowly; it now yields just 94,000 barrels a day. Production at Rumeilah North is to resume on May 25, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Iraq’s oil technicians and engineers worked against a chronic shortage of spare parts during 13 years of U.N. economic sanctions. They became adept at using whatever equipment they could find.

At one gas-oil separation plant in Rumeilah South, employees wired together a hodgepodge of fuse boxes and circuit breakers from suppliers in five countries: Germany, Britain, Russia, Belgium and the United States.

The cabinet containing all the equipment was apparently too big for thieves to drag away. Looters had better luck in the plant’s offices, where they left behind broken glass and a lone rubber sandal.

``I really hate this place. It gives me the heebie-jeebies,″ said U.S. Army Reserve Lt. Col. Ricky Nichols, 42, of Moulton, Ala.

A patch of scorched earth marked an oil well that Saddam’s forces sabotaged ahead of advancing allied troops. Firefighters dug a pit around the shattered well head to get close enough to cap the blazing gusher. Four birds, their green feathers grimy with crude, lay dead near the crater’s edge.

Harby Jasham, a camel herder, has taken advantage of the postwar slowdown at a vast oil processing and pumping station outside the town of North Rumeilah, 25 miles west of Basra, southern Iraq’s largest city. He now herds his 50 camels to a convenient watering hole next to the facility.

``Before, when the oil companies were busy, it was illegal for me to bring my camels here,″ he said as the animals formed a furry scrum to drink from the ditch.

The war has still taken a toll on Jasham’s herd. One night during the invasion, American troops mistook his camels for Iraqi soldiers and shot two of them. Another pair died when they stepped on land mines, he said.

They were but more casualties in an oil-soaked desert already strewn with the carcasses of Iraqi tanks, crushed truck cabs and other monuments of violence from the first Gulf War.

Jasham, 20, shrugged off his losses. Offering a visitor a taste of fresh camel’s milk, he said: ``Saddam’s regime made animals _ and people _ very tough.″

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