SAFRA, Iraq — Anyone who wants to understand why Iraq's Northern Oil Co. still runs at just 20 percent of capacity need only visit the crews assigned to undo the work of thieves and saboteurs along the 50-mile stretch of pipes that dip below and above the sandy terrain between Kirkuk and Baiji.
More than two weeks after terrorists first hit this remote section of pipeline, a ragged crew wrapped up another patch job in its ever-ending repair work.
A backhoe scooped up spilled gasoline from below the repaired line while a bulldozer shoved Iraqi desert into the hole that had been dug around it. The gasoline fumes could make a pit crew wheeze.
"We fix it here, they break it there. We fix it there, they blow it up somewhere else," said Khabbuz Bai Hassan, the head engineer on the repair job, as he wiped his brow and squinted toward the horizon. "I don't know where it ends."
Similar scenes repeat across hundreds of miles of pipeline that crisscross Iraq, explaining why the country's oil production still sits below prewar levels four years after the toppling of Saddam Hussein.
Before the war, Iraq produced about 2.5 million barrels a day. The United States has set a goal of 3 million barrels a day, needed for export sales to pay for government services and for domestic power plants, to return the idea of reliable electricity to Iraqis.
However, the country is struggling to average 2 million barrels a day, with as much as 200,000 a day lost to theft, corruption or sloppy accounting.
Before the U.S.-led invasion, there were hopes that oil revenues would pay for the country's reconstruction. Not anymore.
In May, Congress' Government Accountability Office issued a report noting that there was little to show for the $5.1 billion in U.S. money and $3.8 billion in Iraqi money devoted to fixing the country's oil and electricity capacity. It predicted that several billion more would be needed to repair and modernize oil production.
"The U.S. reconstruction effort was predicated on the assumption that a permissive security environment would exist," the report said. "However, the deteriorating security environment continues to place workers and infrastructure at risk while protection efforts have been insufficient."
The picture in Kirkuk province, home to 40 percent of the country's oil, shows how the very thing that eventually could resuscitate Iraq's wheezing economy is vulnerable to the lawlessness that's strangling it.
Pipelines that carry oil and its various processed products back and forth between Kirkuk city, the province's capital, and Baiji simply are spread over too much ground for security forces to keep eyes on every inch around the clock.
What's more, the people in charge of standing guard are in the motley Strategic Infrastructure Brigade, an offshoot of the Iraqi army that U.S. military officials say isn't well trained and whose quality varies widely from one battalion to the next. One American Army officer described the brigades deployed along the Baiji-to-Kirkuk line as ranging from "predominantly good to predominantly bad." Some are even suspected in the bombings and thefts that strike the pipelines with regularity.
U.S. troops help patrol the area. But their numbers are too small to do much more than mop up the problems that happen under the watch of the Iraqi brigades and to provide security for crews such as the one that mended the break near Safra. And the American and Iraqi soldiers appear to be wary of each other.
"We don't tell the Iraqis in advance when we're coming," said Maj. David Flynn, the executive officer with the U.S. Army's 3rd Battalion, 7th Field Artillery Regiment, or the 3-7. "We come down the road and we see everybody getting on their walkie-talkies. They're saying, 'Here come the other guys.' "
Damage to the pipelines springs from two motives: a desire to cause trouble, and a hunger for profit.
Kirkuk is in the midst of an ethnic changeover that began after the war started. Many of the Arabs who were brought into the province during Saddam's rule to lay claim to its oil are leaving as Kurds return. The resulting tension has caused much of the region's violence and sabotage.
Meanwhile, thieves have learned that they can cut into the pipes and siphon out their contents. Sometimes the crude, gasoline or kerosene is pumped into tanker trucks. Sometimes it's loaded into 55-gallon barrels in the backs of Nissan pickups. Often, U.S. military officers say, it's driven to bootleg refineries.
Evidence of the pipelines' vulnerabilities is common throughout the area. Acres of desert are filled with pools of crude, and the stink of tar wafts for miles. A salt marsh looks like a giant black-and-white ink blot. Huge broken sections of pipe lie scattered across the desert like so many rusted pickups on an Ozarks farmstead.
At first glance, the landscape appears pancake flat. But it undulates just enough to provide blind spots. So 30-foot-tall towers have been erected along the route. Those lookouts, in turn, have fallen victim time and again to bombs.
One recent roasting afternoon, members of the 3-7 went out in a convoy to find out what they could about the recent toppling of a tower near the village of Khifa. Looking for a village leader, they could find only his teenage son.
What, wondered Sgt. 1st Class Robert Flynn of West New York, N.J., did he know about the explosion?
Nothing, the boy said. I was asleep.
"That tower is right by this village," the sergeant said. "This needs to stop right now (or) we're going to come in here and it's not going to be pretty. . . . We're going to start sending people to jail."
Flynn's squad went to check on the nearby outposts of the Iraqi Strategic Infrastructure Brigade, or SIB. Three soldiers with rifles sitting under a tarp guarded the isolated outpost — a makeshift barrier wall surrounding a small mud hut with a single bed frame outside its front door.
Like the boy in the village, the soldiers were clueless about the bombed tower, but they wanted to know whether the U.S. troops could get them some supplies.
At spots beyond the outpost, more SIB soldiers were supposed to be watching the pipeline and one of the towers. But no one was to be found.
(Canon reports for The Kansas City Star.)