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Recovery of Iraqi oil industry crucial to country's future

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The Iraqi capital's only oil refinery, which provides fuel for the darkened city's electric power plants, is running again, but its general manager said he had only a four-day supply of crude oil. The pipelines from the oil fields of Basra and Kirkuk have been damaged, he said, but he's confident they can be repaired before the Doura Refinery runs dry.

Putting the country's oil industry, damaged in the three-week war and crippled by years of United Nations economic sanctions, back on its feet is crucial to restoring order, reviving Iraq's battered economy and paying the enormous cost of rebuilding the country.

The Doura Refinery is the only one in the city and the second largest in the country, behind the Baiji Refinery north of Tikrit. Before the war, it produced 110,000 barrels a day, all for use in Baghdad; now it's struggling to produce 40,000 barrels a day, said Dathar al Khashab, the refinery's general manager. Khashab said it would be weeks before Iraq could resume exporting oil.

Some of the refinery's 2,800 employees began trickling back to work Saturday. They said they'd heard from the radio and from friends that the refinery was open again. Outside the fence, tanker drivers gathered in search of work, but few trucks were leaving the refinery.

About 700 people are working at the facility now, Khashab said. Many were sent home because there wasn't enough work. Some received half their pay for last month, 50,000 Iraqi dinars, or about $17. Officials said they couldn't pay all the workers what they were owed until the banks reopened.

The employees said they were happy to go back to work, but that they were worried that Iraq's old leaders might return. They said the refiner's managers and the officials in the Ministry of Oil were corrupt, and kept government money for themselves.

"The managers are not good for us. They keep everything for themselves," said Salah Hassan, 37, who used to load oil into barrels.

They said they hoped that the Americans would find them new leaders.

"I would rather have someone from Israel, (Prime Minister) Ariel Sharon, working here," said Abd Kareem al Baadee, 45, a driver who lost his job in December because he disagreed with Saddam Hussein's regime. He was at the refinery looking for a job.

Khashab, whom Saddam appointed general manager of the refinery two days before the war, defended his operation, saying: "I get crude oil. I refine it. That's it. I will work for any government."

Khashab has assured U.S and Iraqi officials that if the pipelines can be fixed in time, the refinery can provide enough fuel oil to run the city's electric power plants. Most parts of the city still don't have electricity.

About two dozen gas stations are open in the city, and many have long lines of cars in front of them. Vendors on street corners are selling gasoline in containers for negotiated rates. A gallon costs more than a day's worth of food.

The Ministry of Oil, which occupies a building the size of a city block, doesn't have water or electricity, and employees have spent their first days back in the building cleaning up looted offices, according to American soldiers who've set up seven checkpoints around the building.

"We are supposed to be here until they set up some kind of security," said Pvt. Marcus Burnette of the 3rd Battalion of the 320th Field Artillery, part of the Army's 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Ky.

U.S. war planners have been criticized for putting a higher priority on protecting Iraq's oil fields and the Ministry of Oil in Baghdad before stopping the looting and defending museums and other sites. Some Iraqis said they thought the Americans wanted to control their oil, not liberate their country.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-REFINERY