Kurdish troops pushed outside their semi-autonomous enclave in northern Iraq to protect the nation’s fourth-biggest oilfield from Islamist militants, taking control of a deposit claimed by the central government.
More than 100,000 Kurdish fighters, known as peshmergas, are guarding a “front line” from Iraq’s eastern border with Iran to the northern town of Fishkabur near Turkey, Jabbar Yawar, Peshmerga Ministry secretary-general, said in an interview in Erbil, the Kurdish region’s capital. They now occupy areas around the contested city of Kirkuk, where BP Plc has been in talks with Iraq’s government to help reverse declining output at the oilfield discovered in 1927.
Iraq’s army abandoned Kirkuk last week amid an offensive by militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Peshmergas now control all energy facilities and oil deposits in the Kirkuk area other than a refinery in Baiji, 50 miles (80 kilometers) to the southwest, which ISIL forces have surrounded, Yawar said. ISIL also seized part of a pipeline for oil exports from Kirkuk to Turkey, he said. Crude flows through the pipeline have been halted for security reasons since March 2, according to Iraq’s oil ministry.
“Currently all disputed areas are inside the Kurdistan region or protected by the region’s forces,” Yawar said. “It is not possible that the Iraqi government return and fill these huge areas that it left.”
Media officials at the oil ministry in Baghdad, Iraq’s capital, didn’t answer at least four phone calls for comment.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government is seeking to reverse the battlefield success of ISIL, a breakaway al-Qaeda Sunni Muslim group that seized the northern city of Mosul on June 10 before advancing south toward Iraq’s capital, Baghdad. Sectarian strife is pushing the second-largest oil producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries closer to civil war, three years after the U.S. withdrew its forces from the country.
Iraq, excluding the Kurdish region, holds 150 billion barrels in proven crude reserves, the world’s fifth-biggest deposits. The Kurdistan Regional Government controls 45 billion barrels and has attracted international oil companies including Exxon Mobil Corp. and Total SA with financial terms many investors see as more generous than those available in the rest of the country.
Maliki’s government has for years disputed with the KRG over oil revenue and territory. Tensions increased last month when the Kurds started to export crude to Turkey through a separate pipeline without approval from the central government. A tanker loaded Kurdish crude later in May on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.
The depth in the water of a vessel that loaded June 9 with Kurdish oil became shallower today, according to ship-tracking data compiled by Bloomberg. The United Emblem’s draft decreased to 7.8 meters (26 feet) from 16 meters yesterday. The tanker’s owners didn’t answer two phone calls or an e-mail seeking comment. A ship’s draft lessens when the vessel unloads a cargo.
Kirkuk, which is also a province and the name of the oilfield, has been a flashpoint in the strained relations between Kurds and Iraqi Arabs. The field contains 8.9 billion barrels of crude reserves, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, and the KRG has criticized BP’s planned oilfield work there.
“The Kurds are obviously in a much better position as long as they don’t overreach,” Robin Mills, the head of consulting at Dubai-based Manaar Energy Consulting and Project Management, said late yesterday in a phone interview. “I find it extremely hard to see how they would withdraw.”