ZUBAIR: A member of the oil police walks beside a pipeline stretched like a silver thread across the vast, burning desert of southern Iraq, stopping now and then to brush sand aside with his foot.He is looking for bombs.
"We're using our hands and feet as bomb detectors," the officer, clad in the dark blue uniform of the Iraqi oil police and drenched with sweat, said proudly. "Where can you find that in other parts of the world?"
Iraq's oil police have little to work with in tough desert conditions as they try to protect the vital oil infrastructure and the foreign oil firms that hold the key to Iraq's efforts to recover from years of war, sanctions and economic deprivation.
Since it began auctioning oilfields in 2009, the OPEC member has signed deals with global players that could boost its output capacity to 12 million barrels per day, lifting it into the top echelon and rivalling world leader Saudi Arabia.
But securing its 7,000 km (4,300 miles) of oil and gas pipeline is a challenge.
The oil police have no aeroplanes or helicopters to patrol that vast network, rely instead on crude watch posts at intervals along the pipeline, and hourly foot patrols.
The difficult conditions, and their lack of equipment, raise questions over their ability to halt attacks.
Some watch posts are little more than flimsy, khaki-coloured tents, untettered sides fluttering in the scorching winds of a desert where summer temperatures can reach 55 degrees Celsius.
"Watch posts have no electricity, no power generators, no lights. We can't do our job during the night," said Colonel Mahdi Habib at the pipeline network around the Zubair oilfield.
An explosives expert and commander of southern oil police battalions, Habib said his teams are doing a good job protecting facilities but need bomb detectors, sophisticated alarms and thermal cameras.
"We are using very simple tactics to search for suspicious material around oil pipelines and storage," Habib said during a tour of the lines that carry crude from the giant Basra fields, including Rumaila and Zubair, to nearby storage. "We need bomb detectors to do a real job."
"Working under high summer temperatures and burning sun without even cold water is really tough," Habib said, ordering his men to check an area near a Zubair storage tank.
Protecting vital infrastructure is a key element of Iraq's ambitious plans to lure the billions of dollars in foreign investment it needs to rebuild a shattered economy as Washington prepares to withdraw American troops by year-end.
Brigadier Moussa Abdul-Hassan, chief of the south oil police, said in a recent interview that Iraq was barely capable of protecting its oil resources.
Major-General Hamid Ibrahim, the head of the oil police, told Reuters in March that the 40,000-member force needed to add 12,000 officers.
Pipelines, storage tanks and refineries have often been attacked by insurgents since the 2003 invasion. The vital Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, which transports some 500,000 bpd of crude from the north through Turkey to the Mediterranean, was shut down for five days in March by a bomb.
In February militants hit the Baiji refinery, Iraq's largest, killing workers and detonating bombs that shut down the 310,000 bpd-capacity plant for days.
In early June, the Zubair 1 storage facility was attacked.
Zubair is surrounded by tight security and visitors pass three checkpoints to reach the site. Yet the bombers managed to plant four bombs fashioned from C-4 explosive atop four storage tanks one connected to a mobile phone without being seen by guards.
In response to the Zubair attack, authorities in Basra are studying new security measures, including blast walls, trenches, barbed wire, watch towers and thermal cameras around facilities.
Basra, which handles the bulk of Iraq's oil exports, has seen fewer attacks than other cities, but rocket and roadside bomb attacks by groups loyal to neighbouring Iran still occur.
At a top-level meeting held in Basra last month to discuss the Zubair attacks, senior security and oil officials decided to boost intelligence operations.
"We decided to check the (identities and background) of each oil policeman and employee working at the South Oil Company to verify their records, (to see) if they have connections with any suspected groups," Ali al-Maliki, head of the Basra provincial council security committee, told Reuters.
Maliki also said Iraqi security forces had foiled plots and arrested suspects plotting against Basra's oil infrastructure.
"Our security forces are operating actively, but (too often) only after attacks happen," he said. "We need to adopt new tactics to stop future threats."
COPYRIGHT REUTERS, 2011